(WSVN) - The Florida Panthers IceDen hosted a two-day national hockey tournament to support a group of special needs hockey players.
The ice center believes the message in this is that hockey is for everyone.
“All of the athletes here have disabilities that range from the autism spectrum, cerebral palsy, and a few other developmental disabilities,” said Executive Director of the American Special Hockey Association (ASHA) Jen O’Brien. “The assumption is that if someone has the label, they’re disabled. Sometimes that means people think they can’t do something.”
The players from the National Association of Athletes with Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities (IDD) are proving to their community that they can play the game at the highest level.
Hockey players from 13 different states came to Florida to compete in this national tournament. Among them is goalie Stephen Baggett, who plays on his local team in Washington D.C.
“I just always had a knack for it and I liked to prove to some people I knew in high school that said I wouldn’t amount to anything,” Baggett said. “I love when they doubt me because then I prove them wrong.”
Forward Jared Hall came from Alaska to take part in the competition.
“A lot of people I played with, they just loved how I played and stuff,” said Hall. “The coaches I’ve had over the years really like the development I’ve had and I’ve just become a good skater.”
A highlight of the event was meeting and talking to Florida Panther’s forward, Ryan Lomberg.
“I love it, you know, being able to share something through hockey,” said Lomberg. “You know, we’re smiling together and enjoying the game. [It’s] bringing us all together.”
Panther’s Community Relations Vice President John Colombo said the growth of special hockey is emerging.
“I think we are really interested in, you know, making sure that any kid that wants to have the chance to play the game of hockey has that opportunity, “said Colombo.
The national tournament was not only for children with special needs as local South Florida high school students without disabilities played alongside their exceptional teammates. David Ross, a forward for Pembroke Pines Charter’s hockey team, said that he has always heard that people with mental disabilities can’t participate in certain activities.
“They’re just like everybody else,” said Ross. “Labels shouldn’t be something that defines them.”
The Panther’s Foundation put on a weekend tournament through a $20,000 grant that covered everything including, ice time for drills, skills competition, and all meals.
They also provided customized jerseys for all the players that participated in this event.
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