Hockey Scores For Diplomacy…In Central Park

If you were passing by Lasker Rink in the far reaches of Central Park on Friday morning as the rain stopped, you may have looked twice at the goings on on the ice, and frankly, what you were seeing may have been one of those once in a lifetime events that sports seems to pull together. The only difference wa,s it was really a “three times in a lifetime” experience, if you happened to be in Washington earlier this week and Boston next week.

However, even for New York, this was a unique experience.

Taking to the ice were two unusual groups when one thinks about ice time: The American Special Hockey Association, which has used the sport to change the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of kids with various disabilities, joining forces with the United Arab Emirates Women’s National Hockey Team, all surrounded by former Rangers great Tom Laidlaw.

Yes that’s right: kids with disabilities of all kings, taking to the ice with a team of women who have embraced the sport from the most unlikeliest of places, in the shadows of Harlem. Quite a mix.

The UAE national team is touring US cities for the second consecutive year, and has partnered with ASHA to support the growing community of hockey players with intellectual and developmental disabilities before the Special Olympics goes to the Emirates later this year. And part of the day’s events was the donation of hundreds of pieces of equipment by the team to the kids and the volunteer army, all to raise awareness for both groups.

“I have been around hockey all my life, and you think when you get to a certain age that you have seen it all, but this is really something unique, and I hope that the public really gets a chance to grasp what this means not just for our sport, but for anyone looking to do good,” Laidlaw said, as he worked with the kids from the North Stars, who would be receiving the equipment.

For those who don’t know, the goal of ASHA Special Hockey is to give people with physical and developmental disabilities the chance to learn and connect with the sport of Ice Hockey in an environment which is customized for inclusive, safe and engaging participation. They have almost 100 chapters now across the country, several in the New York area, and their numbers keep growing.

The UAE team grew out of a chance meeting a few years ago between the Washington Capitals Peter Bondra, who was on a goodwill mission for the club and their partner Etihad Airways, to the Emirates. He met a young woman named Fatima Al Ali, who happened to be skating at a rink when Bondra was there, and the story took off from there. The team now has upwards of 20 young women of all ages, and they are working with Hockey is for Everyone (HIFE), the National Hockey League’s initiative dedicated to celebrating grassroots hockey and the game’s growing diversity. The program offers people of all backgrounds opportunities to play hockey and leverages the sport as a catalyst to teach essential life skills and the core values of hockey: commitment, perseverance, and teamwork, and the UAE team fits that description perfectly.

The stop for the women was the second of three on this goodwill tour, which only came together in the past six weeks. They had an event in Washington earlier this week and will go on to Boston next week, each time delivering new equipment to ASHA local clubs, courtesy of the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC. The equipment will be used to help ASHA launch new teams in Florida and Las Vegas later this year.

“When I tell people I coach a Special Needs Hockey Team in an outdoor rink in Manhattan, I always get the same reaction Who? they have a Hockey Team?” said Jen O’Brien, Executive Director of the American Special Hockey Association, who lives in upstate Binghamton and made the drive down with all the equipment, as well as to Washington earlier this week and to Boston next. “It is cool to meet another team who’s players come from a non-traditional Hockey background like ours. We thank them for believing in us!”

The donation of equipment was the rarest of rare for the ASHA; the first time a non endemic partner has stepped up to help enhance the experience for these young people in such a massive way. And although O’Brien would not divulge the dollar amount of the donation, the impact amongst the kids was indeed priceless, not just for a February Friday but for years to come, an impact that goes well beyond a sheet of ice on the Upper West Side.

While maybe an event like this is not the glitziest for a league like the NHL, it goes a long way in growing the mission and the impact of the sport to kids who had no connection to the game, and it linked groups of people with vastly different backgrounds with a common interest; using sport to change lives. That, even more than the equipment, is the takeaway from the event…how a simple game can move mountains in the subtlest of ways, be it in Manhattan or the Middle East, and how it can leave a lasting effect on all to aspire to do more.

While it isn’t the greatest of years thus far for our local hickey teams, Friday proved to be a great day for the sport, one which made fans for life of a team of determined young women and dozens of kids whose families in their wildest dreams would have never out these two groups together for a common goal.

Score one for hockey diplomacy, in the most unique of ways.

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