Montgomery Cheetahs hockey coach named Community Hero for work with special-needs kids

April 25, 2012

When David Lucia takes to the ice Saturday mornings, he’s doing more than coaching a hockey team. He’s teaching life skills to children with special needs using a sport he loves.

Lucia, 50, of Bethesda, is coach of the Montgomery Special Hockey Cheetahs, an all-volunteer program with more than 60 members ages 4 to 22.

“We consider ourselves one team because we are a social group, but when we are on the ice we break up into skill levels,” Lucia said.

Lucia was awarded the Montgomery County Civic Federation Community Hero award at the group’s meeting April 9 in Rockville.

The Civic Federation, founded in 1925, works to protect and improve the quality of life for citizens in Montgomery County, said the group’s president, Peggy Dennis.

The group randomly awards a certificate and public recognition to people it considers civic heroes, she said.

“We usually try to look for ordinary people doing wonderful things, people fighting hard battles that [deserve] a little recognition,” Dennis said.

Montgomery Special Hockey Cheetahs was started in 2006 as a bar mitzvah project by Cory and Jacob Berk, brothers who played ice hockey for Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. It is an adaptive ice hockey program for people with developmental disabilities, mostly on the autism spectrum, but no one with a disability is turned away, Lucia said.

He started coaching when the team formed in 2006. His son, David, now 14, was one of the original members of the team.

The team is a part of the American Special Hockey Association, which was started in 2000 for players with developmental disabilities and represents 50 teams around the country. Lucia is vice president of outreach for that group.

They try to play a 15-game schedule, which can be a problem because of the availability of rinks, Lucia said.

“This is what we call our brand of hockey: When we play our games the score is always tied. We are not about winning. Winning for us is about getting those kids on the ice and having a good time,” Lucia said.

In addition to Lucia, the team has four assistant coaches and middle- and high-school mentors to provide one-on-one help with each Cheetah, Lucia said.

“When they offered me the award, I had to explain it’s the kids who are the heroes,” he said.

Lucia said the Cheetahs are not all about hockey; the children are learning life skills.

“It provides a safe, accepting place where they can play, regardless of their abilities,” Lucia said. “It’s not about winning, it’s about playing.”

Besides the fact that Lucia loves ice hockey — he played at Notre Dame University and also coaches his 12-year-old daughter’s team in the Montgomery Youth Hockey Association — he said the sport is well suited to the needs of people with neuromuscular disabilities.

The ice rink provides a confined space and the puck never goes out of bounds, so the game keeps moving, Lucia said. The equipment provides players with obvious physical protection and a social “boundary.”

“They are learning responsibility and teamwork,” Lucia said.

Jenny Slater of Gaithersburg is assistant director of the Cheetahs. Her son, Drew, 14, is on the team.

One benefit, she said, is the friendships Drew has formed with other players.

“It’s socialization for the parents, too: parents who understand,” she said.

Lucia added, “You will have kids on the ice who will have complete meltdowns. It’s no problem, we’ve all been through it. . . . Anything you have for special needs, you have someone there who will lend an ear and help you.”

Sean Twombly of Potomac, executive director of the Cheetahs, said Lucia brings a positive set of attributes to the team.

“Our kids need structure, and he conveys hockey in a manner that assigns structure,” Twombly said.

His son, Benjamin, 9, is a team member, and he said he likes being on the team because some of his best friends are on it.

About coach Lucia, Benjamin said, “He is very nice and he teaches us how to skate and do drills we have not learned.”

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