Submitted by john murphy on Thu, Feb 3, 2011

New Goal for Ice Hockey Players, a news article by Ellen Oxild writing for the MontvillePatch ( 

For a group of JV and Varsity hockey team players from Montville Township High School, goals go beyond scoring scoring points.

On most Saturdays, players from both teams volunteer their time at the Codey Arena in West Orange, coaching children with special needs. They are part of the New Jersey Dare Devils, a team comprised of 56 children, over 50 junior coaches from various high schools, and nine adult coaches.

The NJ Dare Devils is a nonprofit volunteer organization and member of the American Special Hockey Association (ASHA), which is part of USA Hockey Disabled. Children in the program have a wide range of special needs, including autism, Down syndrome, speech, learning, and other developmental and physical disabilities.

Richard J. Codey Arena, formerly known as South Mountain Arena, is home to the NJ Dare Devils. Ice time, normally very expensive, is donated to the team every season for regular Saturday afternoon practices and games. This season started in September and runs through April. The NJ Dare Devils also travel to tournaments and games in the mid-Atlantic and northeast.

Jon Schwartz, Dare Devils head coach and board member of ASHA, helped start the Dare Devils in 2002.

“Over nine years ago there wasn’t anything in the tri-state area for families coping with developmental disabilities,” he said. “There was a glaring need, because New Jersey heads the nation in Autism, with one out of 94 children.”

According to Schwartz, nearly 80 percent of the children on the team are on the autistic spectrum. 

“Hockey is a team sport, but in our view, it’s the ultimate occupational therapy for children and adults with disabilities,” he said. “It teaches responsibility, accountability, and sportsmanship, which are critical to development. We start children at age five and keep the program open to adults. They become skillful hockey players and learn life skills. And in the process, the people involved in this program have become family.”

Stephen Ritter is one of the senior coaches, and manager of the mentor program, which is the key to the Dare Devils' success. The mentors receive special training to become junior coaches on the team.

“The junior coach is responsible for keeping the child involved in the activities and drills,” he said. “A lot of these kids require one-on-one attention. We like to do that. This gives our program an edge over other programs. With 56 kids, it’s very hard to do. We assign kids a different junior coach each week. This helps with social skills, and helps the junior coaches as well.”

Ritter looks for specific qualities when recruiting junior coaches.

“We want them to be leaders in society,” he said. “We bring them in, provide training on communication skills, disabilities, and what they’ll be dealing with. We open up their eyes. A lot of these kids have never seen disabilities. This is an awakening and the bond is ice hockey.”

Bob Milazzo, father of a 13-year-old son plays on the team, has seen an improvement in his son thanks to the Dare Devils.

“When I saw the number of mentors, number of coaches, we put him in,” he said. “We’ve gone to every therapy. You spend $1,000 here and $1,000 there, but is was ironic that we started coming here, and he picked up so much socialization in a couple of road trips.”

Last fall, the team was in serious need of more mentors, when Coach Ritter got a call from a Montville mom.

“In September, we were short on Junior Coaches and started contacting high schools,” he said. “A mom from Montville called us and said she had five kids. It turned into 14 kids. She guaranteed us four kids a week, but it’s turned into seven or eight. A kid at that age to give up time on a Saturday is hard to find.”

The mom, Tracey Bednash, was thrilled and humbled by the response she got from the Montville Hockey organization.

“I heard through a friend that the Dare Devils were in dire need of junior coaches,” she said. “I spoke to my son, Trevor, and one of his friends about the idea, and they were on board from the start. Volunteering while teaching something they're so passionate about was a no-brainer.  So I put an email out to the whole Montville Hockey organization to see if there would be more interest. Even with our boys' hectic high school and club hockey schedules, we can still guarantee the Dare Devils at least a handful of them each week for their practice.”

Sophomore Joey DeAlesantro is one of the players who signed up to help.

“I figured I’d give it a try,” he said. “I loved it. I’m helping out, but it doesn’t seem that I’m helping out, because I’m having a good time. Since the first time I came, I’ve been doing it every week. It’s fun and I like to be with the kids. I actually made a few friends." 

Coach Ritter said the boundaries on the ice rink help children with autism to focus. The rink is divided into three skill levels. One end is used for one-on-one. Every child gets a junior coach. The other end has a game situation. The middle has strength training activities.  Coaches are moved around as needed. The session is one hour and 45 minutes, and everyone stays active on the ice during that time. 

Brian Griffin, whose 16-year-old son has autism, says it's an ideal setting.

"The beauty of hockey is you can get them on the rink, close the door, and they can't get off the ice,” he said. “Their focus is generated on the ice when they’re contained. Smaller spaces work better." 

“It feels good to initially work with a kid on the ‘basic skating skills’ side of the rink and then have him progress to the ‘hockey side’ of the rink,” Montville junior coach Trevor Bednash said. “You can see how happy they are to make that move.”

The key, according to Ritter, is the one-on-one attention the kids get from the program.

“Some kids can’t talk or communicate, some can’t sign,” he said. “We tell the mentors, if this doesn’t work, find something that does. They will start to follow what we do. If they lay down on the ice, we lay down with them. We make snow angels with them. Eventually, they will get too cold to stay down.” 

For the volunteers, like Montville's Nick Arlotta, watching the kids develop skills provides a special satisfaction.

“The boy I worked with could barely skate when I first got partnered with him,” he said. “By the time we were done with our practice, he was skating on his own with very little help. It was more than just teaching him to move on the ice, it was the best feeling to have him look up to me. I could really tell he was so proud of himself."

Schwartz said mentoring gives the junior coaches freedom to explore.

“In regular hockey, from the moment they get on the ice after tryouts, everything is choreographed. When they get here, they can explore. They learn by teaching.” 



Date of Publication: 
Thu, Feb 3, 2011