The motto of the National Hockey League’s official youth development program is “Hockey is for Everyone.” But when Norwell’s John Quill says those words, he does so from the heart.
“My son Sean, who is autistic, was involved in the South Shore Seahawks learn-to-skate program,” said Quill. “That was an excellent program, but he got too old to participate. . . . I started looking for a hockey program that would meet his ability level, and I learned about American Special Hockey and Mass Disabled Hockey.”
Quill ended up helping establish the Boston Bear Cubs special hockey program in 2006.
“We started the program on a minirink at Bavis Arena in Rockland,” he said. “We had five players for our first session. Two are still involved as players, and another as a volunteer. We moved to Hobomock Arena [in Pembroke], and for the past six seasons have been at Shea Rink in Quincy. We now have about 30 players, five coaches, and about two-dozen regular volunteers who help out.”
Sean Quill, now 19 and attending school in New Hampshire, comes home often to skate and play.
The growth of Quill’s Bear Cubs program is mirrored in the special hockey programs dotting Eastern Massachusetts today. Additional programs include Cape Ann Youth Hockey’s Challenger Program at the Dorothy Talbot Rink in Gloucester, the East Coast Jumbos at the Rivers School in Weston, and Woburn Youth Hockey’s Challenger Program at the O’Brien Rink. All give youngsters with special circumstances the chance to appreciate the sublime joy of skating with a stick, chasing a small black puck, and to experience a game synonymous with Boston and the Big Bad Bruins.
Gloucester’s Michael English started the Cape Ann Challenger program last fall with the help of a Cheever Grow Hockey grant from Massachusetts Hockey. Middle and high school players team with adult coaches to help “challenged” athletes ages 6 to 16. English’s two teenage sons and his wife all contribute, a recurring theme of these programs.
“The goal is to provide children with developmental disabilities an opportunity to try and play hockey,” said English of the Saturday afternoon skates. “Most of the players can skate. We need players and volunteers, and the rest comes together.
The programs are typically offered free of charge. According to Worcester’s Richard Fask, cochairman of the Massachusetts Hockey Adaptive Hockey Committee, the steady growth in both special hockey programs and sled hockey programs has been encouraging.
“I feel that all the volunteers are the key to most successful programs,” said Fask. “That said, I find that volunteering in adaptive sports gives me a much better perspective on life.
“I meet so many fantastic athletes that are really great people,” he said. “It is some of the most rewarding work that I do.”
Sometimes, the programs recruit from the college ranks.
“Last year, we brought in some of the Merrimack College hockey players,” said Wilmington’s Steven Hunt, who coaches with the Woburn Challenger program. “A few of the parents thought the kids may not take to the college players, because they were new and their kids didn’t know them.’’
“Within five minutes the kids were smiling, laughing, and playing with the college kids,” he said. “That says a lot about the kids learning to trust new people . . . there to help them, and it says a lot about the type of players and men that these college players are.”
Hopkinton firefighter Ray LeBlanc runs the East Coast Jumbos program, and said “one of our biggest goals is to make every kid feel like they’re an important part of a team.”
“Regardless of a kid’s level, everyone loves the feeling of accomplishment,” said LeBlanc. “I have a coach who tells me ‘This is the best part of my week. Nothing even comes close.’ ”
Quill, like many program organizers, said coaching methods vary from player to player.
“In essence, we want to create a safe and fun environment for kids and young adults to learn to skate and play hockey, and compete to the best of their ability,” he said. “We have had a number of players join the team who had never skated before. And we have watched them progress to the point where they could skate independently, then participate in hockey drills, then compete in games.”
At Cape Ann, said English, it’s about bringing the community — and not just the hockey community — together.
“It’s corny, but it takes a village,” he said. “Hockey players and families sometimes get a bad rap, but I have seen the most wonderful things happen on the ice by bringing some passionate hockey players together with some kids who have not had the best hand dealt to them.’’
“The players are happy,’’ said English, “the coaches are happy, the parents are happy, the coaches’ parents are happy, and even the grandparents are happy.”
To learn more about special hockey programs through Massachusetts Hockey, visit mahockey.org.If you have an idea for the Globe’s “On the Move” column, contact correspondent Brion O’Connor at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please allow several weeks advance notice.