The Power of Play
He's just 9, but already Robby Callihan has had an ice hockey career that most hockey-loving kids only dream about. He has skated at Verizon Center, home of the Washington Capitals; he has met Olaf Kolzig, their goalie; and he has played in an international tournament.
But even with all that, Robby says his favorite hockey memory "is playing with my friends."
By that he means the NOVA Cool Cats. The team's 30-plus members have developmental disabilities that often prevent them from playing with kids their age. Most of the Cool Cats, including Robby, have a condition called autism. (See box below.)
There are 30 such hockey teams in the United States, with about 500 kids and adults playing, said Michael Hickey, president of the American Special Hockey Association. Three of the teams in the Washington area.
Timothy Wolf, 13, travels four hours from his home in Pennsylvania to play with the Cool Cats. His sister, Rachel, 8, is on the team, too. Their family moved from Sterling to State College, Pennsylvania, last year, but Timothy says the long drive back to Reston is worth it to be with his friends.
"People are nice here. They made me feel welcome," he said after a recent game.
The Cool Cats play by different rules. For instance, they don't keep score or call offsides if a player beats the puck into the attacking zone. Their coaches stress teamwork, responsibility and friendship over winning.
Scott Brawley spent years watching his older sister's hockey games before his dad, Randy, started the Cool Cats two years ago. Randy Brawley was refereeing at the Special Hockey International Tournament when he heard about the Washington Ice Dogs in Laurel. Hickey, coach of the Ice Dogs, helped Randy Brawley start the Cool Cats.
Now 12-year-old Scott spends as much time as he can on the ice with his sister Amanda, 13, who is helping the Cool Cats learn to play.
"He wouldn't even talk to anybody [before], and now he hugs his teammates," Randy Brawley said of his autistic son.
Mentors such as Amanda are important to the team. Parents, siblings and other hockey players regularly attend practices to give the Cool Cats one-on-one attention. It has paid off: In the past year, the team competed in the Disabled Festival in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the Special Hockey International Tournament in St. Louis, Missouri. And next April the Cool Cats will host more than 20 teams in the Special Hockey Tournament.
"This team is good for anyone who doesn't fit in," said Timothy. "Everyone is welcomed."
-- Amy Orndorff