A special needs hockey program established by the Sydney Minor Hockey Association is inspiring athletic and social growth

Sunday nights in the fall and winter over the past couple of years have been a gift to Patricia Deveaux.

What is giving the Nova Scotia hockey mom joy? The special needs hockey program run by the Sydney Minor Hockey Association (SMHA).

Deveaux sits in the stands and watches her nine-year-old son Christopher – who communicates with sign language – learn skills, forge friendships and have fun on the ice alongside kids with ADHD, autism, Down syndrome and other disabilities.

“He’s very happy,” Deveaux says. “When he first started, he couldn’t even stand on the ice, but now he wants nothing to do with holding the trainer. He is improving, and you can see the improvement in him. He is excited to go every week.”

The growth the kids experience goes beyond the increasing of hockey ability.

“Social skills are being developed in all the kids,” says Deveaux. “One of the big reasons we put [Christopher] in the program was to be around other kids. I see the difference because they recognize each other when they go each week, they say hi to each other, and if somebody is absent, they notice it.”

The momentum to establish the program began nearly three years ago with a coach approaching David Jamael, president of the SMHA, to express disappointment that multiple kids in the association with ADHD decided to quit playing.

Jamael found out during the Hockey Nova Scotia Annual General Meeting in March 2017 that money was available to rent ice times for a special needs program in Sydney because of the funds raised from the Hockey Canada Foundation Gala and Golf, which was hosted in Halifax in June 2016.

The YCMA of Cape Breton advised Jamael there would be keen interest within the community, thrusting the endeavour forward.

“We decided to launch it and just see where it took us,” says Jamael. “We had seven or eight kids signed up at the start. We got more kids as the year went along as the word began to spread. I had six or seven coaches on the ice, and we would all get our teams on the ice to help out – I was coaching Peewee A at the time.”

Just under 20 kids now participate in the SMHA special needs program. The coaches on the ice promote a fun atmosphere each week by empowering the kids to take charge.

“Each coach gets paired up with a kid, and you and your kid do what he [or she] decides to do,” says Matt MacLeod, a coach with the program since the beginning. “Some like to skate and some like to play. They have a great time on the ice and seeing the smile on their face is truly rewarding.”

Jamael finds it rewarding that the kids fondly refer to Sunday as “hockey day.”

“They get so excited for it that they have a tough time focusing on the rest of the day because they are so excited for hockey,” he says.

One of the most positive success stories of the program came at the end of last year when a dad informed Jamael that the program had given his son the confidence to move on from the program and try out for a minor hockey team this season.

Jamael and his team will hope to help author more uplifting stories as season three of the program commences Nov. 3.