- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 17, 2005

Nothing in the dressing room seems unusual. There are a dozen or so children in various stages of undress, parents pleading with them to hurry. There is good-natured banter, but the noise level is low, if anything, almost mellow.

Finally dressed, they parade out to the ice at Gardens Ice House in Laurel. It is early on a Saturday morning, very early and very cold, but that is not even a minor inconvenience for this group. They pass a quick visual inspection, then gently step out onto the ice and glide into another world.

“It seems like they leave all their troubles here, on this side of the boards,” Washington Capitals goalie Olie Kolzig said. “Nobody knows why. They get out there on skates, and everything’s different. Well, pretty much different anyway.”

The group is made up of people — on this day, they age in range from 4 to 34 — who live with disorders that make what most people consider normal daily functions impossible for some, barely possible for others. Most of them have autism, while others have Down syndrome.

To outsiders, it looks like any team warming up. They stretch, bend, skate in circles and laugh, all while trained coaches watch. Volunteers called mentors — usually students from high schools or churches earning community service credit — help guide them. The coaches always return. The mentors normally do also, usually on their own.

What happens when the participants take the ice is unmistakable and remarkable — whatever disabilities they have evaporate, sometimes almost entirely. People who have difficulty navigating a sidewalk glide effortlessly across the ice and seem almost completely at ease.

If the transformation is magical, it is also mysterious. No one is sure why a sport like hockey would have such a calming effect, but there is no doubt it does.

“The benefit of hockey is it gives kids a medium to move in a different manner than they would every day, and it may actually help them to be more organized in their movements,” said Dr. Carole Sprouse, a neurodevelopmentalist who has a clinical appointment to George Washington University and is director of the Neurodevelopmental Diagnostic Center for Young Children in Laurel.

“We don’t understand the reason why [hockey is successful], but they look very different on the ice than they do walking around.”

The sensory levels of autistics are extraordinary, and that might have something to do with the connection between the affliction and the sport. Some participants love to get down and feel the ice with open hands, even lie on it.

“We don’t know if the helmet and other equipment make them more comfortable and shields them, but their disabilities pretty much seem to disappear when they’re playing,” said Mike Hickey, the director of the Laurel program. “I don’t have an explanation as to why it works; we’re just glad it does. It’s not so much hockey as it is teaching these kids social skills, life skills, responsibility — and hockey is the tool we use. We can reach them that way.”

But as much as the ice and the game are magnets, challenges remain. One child new to the program had no problem skating but refused mandatory safeguards, such as a helmet. Again, no one is sure why.

The Maryland program was organized by Hickey and his wife, Kim, of Crofton seven years ago, modeled after a program in St. Louis. There now is a similar one in Northern Virginia and at least 15 others in the United States and Canada, as well as some in Europe. The two local programs have about 80 participants and are growing.

The normal rules of the game are basically ignored by Hickey’s group, the American Special Hockey Association. There is no offsides, no icing, no body contact. There is scoring, but no matter which team scores, both sides cheer long and hard.

“We took some of those things out of the game because it might be confusing or tough for the kids,” Hickey said. “Noise affects many autism patients, so we go with whistles, not buzzers. A buzzer might set some of them off, trigger a meltdown.”

A meltdown is when a developmentally challenged person reacts, or overreacts, to something that has startled or frightened them. It does not happen often in the hockey setting — again, no one is sure why — but when it does, the patient is taken aside and calmed down by mentors and coaches until he is ready to continue.

One of the huge successes of the Laurel program is Joe Howe, 34, a Safeway employee in Annapolis for almost four years. The hockey program turned his life around.

Howe now lives in a group home with two other residents and his guardian, Walter Boydston of Langton Green Inc., an agency that oversees residential settings for developmentally challenged residents. He was placed with the agency after the state of Maryland removed him from his former residence, where he was being verbally abused by people who were paid to care for him, Boydston said.

“He [has] had a very rough life,” Boydston said. “They would call him stupid, retarded, dumb, every name you could imagine. They would lock him up in his room, wouldn’t let him use the phone. He couldn’t have company. He was being warehoused. Joe had a very poor image of himself when he got here.”

But Howe excelled in athletic environments. Even with that, he was disruptive with a bad temper. It was hard for him to stay focused, and he would go from one menial job to another within a few months.

“Hockey changed things,” Boydston said. “The coaches were very strict. There was a routine he had to follow and rules he had to follow. They worked with Joe on his temper.

“That was six years ago. Once hockey started, the [bad] behavior decreased. He’s been able to get and hold a job, and I have to attribute at least some of that to hockey and growing a little older. He also has a new circle of friends. I’m amazed, to be honest.”

Kolzig isn’t as surprised.

“I’d see Joe at the Safeway,” said Kolzig, whose son Carson — 5 on New Year’s Day — is autistic. “He always knew the [Caps’] schedule. If Pittsburgh was next, he’d remind me to say hello to Mario [Lemieux] for him or [Jaromir] Jagr or somebody. I’m not surprised Joe is doing well out here. He’s always liked hockey.”

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