Ann Schaab of Laurel, about three feet tall on skates, was one of the smallest players on the ice Saturday morning at hockey practice. She went after the puck and kept up with the pack at the Gardens Ice House in Laurel.
“She thinks she can do anything,” Melissa Schaab said of her 7-year-old daughter, who was skating with players towering over her.
Ann, who has Down syndrome, plays on the Washington Ice Dogs, a Laurel-based team for special-need adults and children ages 4 or older. Parents said the team has made major differences in the confidence and social skills of their children.
Ann always has wanted to play hockey, her mother said, because she grew up watching her two older brothers play. When she took part in a learn-to-skate class last year, most children wore figure skating outfits. Ann, on the other hand, wore full hockey pads, Schaab said.
Being on a team such as the Ice Dogs has been life-changing, giving her daughter opportunities she otherwise would not have, Schaab said.
“It’s so nice to have a place where she can play hockey on her own terms,” Schaab said. “We want her to have the same opportunities as her brothers.”
Giving players with special needs an opportunity to get on the ice is the goal of the Ice Dogs, founder Mike Hickey of Crofton said. The team is part of the American Special Hockey Association, a network of about 50 hockey teams for players with special needs who would be excluded or not get the attention they need from other teams, Hickey said.
The Laurel team travels about six times a year to other rinks in the area and across the country for tournaments.
The all-volunteer association grew out of Hickey’s passions. He started playing hockey at age 6, and in 1997 started working with children who have special needs as a teacher’s assistant at the Phillips School in Laurel, a school for people with disabilities.
He gathered nine of his students and started a hockey team in 2000, which became the Washington Ice Dogs, named after the Phillips School’s bulldog mascot.
“I wanted to give back to the sport that supported me for years,” he said. “I learned a lot playing hockey, so I knew these kids could learn from it, too.”
The team of about 35 players is divided into a more competitive A team and a B team of less-experienced players, which focuses on developing basic skills. Teams run drills and hold scrimmages. Checking, or hitting, is not allowed. Rules such as icing (moving the puck from one’s own end of the ice to the other without another player touching it) and offsides (when an offensive player without the puck skates over the blue line before the puck crosses) are not enforced. The players use basic hockey equipment, such as pads, skates and sticks, which are provided by the league.
The teams have five coaches. The coaches also get help from current and former high school hockey players from areas including Elkridge, Pasadena and Silver Spring, with the high schoolers acting as mentors for the Ice Dogs.
The biggest difference between coaching regular players and special-needs players is the amount of patience required, mentor Bill Sands of Silver Spring said.
“I wouldn’t say you need special skills to coach these kids. You just need them in greater quantities,” said Sands, who mentored for four years in high school and comes back to help out during breaks from McDaniel College in Westminster, where he is a junior. “Like patience. They don’t get things right away, and you just have to work at their pace.”
Since 2000, Hickey said, the team grew and split into other area special hockey teams, including the Montgomery Cheetahs and the Baltimore Saints. The loose network of hockey teams for players with special needs across the country was in want of a supporting organization, Hickey said. In 2007, he founded the American Special Hockey Association, the first national association of special hockey teams in the country.
“Teams would apply for grants and most of the time be denied because the organization was too small,” Hickey said. “But now, rather than having a 20-kid team, we have a 2,000-kid organization.”
The association has 49 teams in 30 cities across the country. Hickey said it’s constantly growing, as teams gain players and new teams are formed.
Funding, which pays for ice time and equipment like pads, skates and sticks for players, comes from a $300-per-season fee for each player and from donations, which cover about 40 percent of expenses.
When the Ice Dogs A team gets on the ice, one never would know there was something different about it, team parents said.
“There is no disability out there,” said Tammy Leishear of Laurel, whose 14-year-old son, Jarrett, has been playing for the team for four years. “When they’re off the ice, you see their disability. When they get on the ice, they’re just kids playing.”
Joe Howe, 40, of Annapolis has been on the Ice Dogs for seven years and was named league Most Valuable Player last year when the team traveled to Colorado Springs for a tournament.
“I love competing,” said Howe, who has autism. “I love being around my teammates, and with the coaches.”
Jarrett has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and borderline Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that makes it difficult to interact socially. But since Jarrett joined the team, he has changed a lot, his mother said.
“It’s relaxed him a lot,” Leishear said. “He’s more social, more engaging. He’s not afraid to joke around.”
Chris Rouff of Calverton has been coming to Ice Dogs practice for more than seven years and said he’s seen major changes in his 13-year-old son, Andrew, who has a form of autism.
“The camaraderie is important,” Rouff said. “Hockey requires lots of interaction. [Andrew] hears ‘I’m open’ and responds to that. He notices more what’s going on around him.”
The camaraderie on the ice is alive in the snack bar as well, where parents talk while watching the game through the glass.
“The team gives a support system to the parents,” Yolanda Swindell of Hyattsville said. Her son, Justin Smith, 12, is autistic and has been playing hockey with the Ice Dogs for more than three years. “But it’s funny, they don’t focus on the disability. It’s just hockey. I don’t think I’ve ever even heard the word ‘autism’ here.”
The Ice Dogs practice every Saturday and will travel to Toledo, Ohio, in February for a tournament.