With the Green Monster as a backdrop, and the emphasis on soaking up atmosphere, the Waltham High boys’ varsity hockey team skated against the East Coast Jumbos on the frozen surface at Fenway Park on Wednesday afternoon.
The Hawks players just wanted to make the experience memorable for the Jumbos, a special needs team based in the Watch City. That is always their goal when volunteering their time to the program, which fields a roster of players from high school age to the late 20s.
The two teams shared players to balance the competition, and while the play was mostly back-and-forth, two players seemed completely separated from the rest of the gang.
Round and round they went, skating in circles along the inside of the Fenway rink as their colleagues battled for the puck.
The White team scored, and the pair kept circling. The Black team scored, and still, the two were circling. Finally, the buzzer sounded, signaling a two-minute shift was over, and both players went back to their bench.
“That would be my son Shane,” said Jumbos coach Ray LeBlanc, ever so proudly. “He’s 19 years old and he’s autistic.”
Frankly, Shane doesn’t like hockey. He never has. He’s been playing with the Jumbos for a few years, but he rarely touches the puck during games. Regardless, ever since his dad put him in skates, that free feeling of gliding along the ice has brought him happiness.
“The whole back and forth of the game really frustrates him,” Rick said. “So we just let him skate. And we found out a couple years ago that when someone plays tag with him and chases him, he’ll turn it up. He loves it.”
That would explain the tail Shane had closely behind him during every shift. Waltham senior J.J. Murphy never got more than a few feet of separation, occasionally skating in front of Shane and encouraging him to pick up speed just a little bit.
Autism is a daily challenge, but skating seems to make everything better for Shane – for at least a few minutes.
“I think when he first gets on the ice he’s usually pretty angry,” said Shane’s 12-year-old brother, Jake. “He really doesn’t love hockey. But he just loves to get out there and skate.”
Shane wasn’t the only one enjoying himself at the park. The Jumbos had been looking forward to their day at the park for months, even though they have also played exhibition matches against the men’s and women’s programs from Boston College and Harvard in the past. Recently, they skated against the Holliston boys’ squad at the DCU Center in Worcester. (Ray LeBlanc is an assistant coach for his cousin, Rick, at Holliston).
For the past few years, Waltham coach John Maguire has asked his varsity players to team up with the Jumbos program and teach the players the game. But it’s not just a few minutes of drills after a weekday practice – Maguire asks for a commitment, from December to March.
On three consecutive Sundays, four of his players will wake up at sunrise and drive to the Rivers School in Weston to volunteer for a few hours. Practice starts at 6:30 a.m.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Ray LeBlanc. “I said that to my parents, ‘Do you guys realize what these kids give up? They give up their Saturday nights. They don’t have too many mornings that they can sleep in. They don’t.’ “
But the Waltham players are happy to help out.
“It’s worth the time,” said Maguire’s son, Chris, a senior captain for Hawks.
“You take away a lot from them. Just to appreciate both life and the games you get to play. During hockey season, it gets pretty intense and a lot of emotion builds up, but this just makes hockey a lot of fun.”
Waltham is having a down year on the ice. A 1-5 start isn’t what the Hawks were looking for after a bizarre season (seven ties) a year ago.
“Sure, when you’re losing it can be frustrating,” said senior captain Jack LeClair. “But when you go to the Rivers School on Sunday mornings and you see how upbeat and happy these kids are, it’s like, ‘Wow, I should be thankful about playing hockey and not frustrated or worried about our games and if we’re winning or losing.’
“It puts things in perspective.”