By Greg Bates, Special to AHAI
With four locations around Chicagoland, opportunities abound for anyone wanting to try hockey
For years, the Chicago Blackhawks Special Hockey (CBSH) program has been a hit.
Its three locations around Chicagoland provided those with cognitive disabilities an opportunity to play the sport.
With so much interest, the program wanted to expand. On Jan. 1 of this year, CBSH added a fourth location at Tilt Studio (Rink Side) in Gurnee.
“We’re growing it to the north because we’ve got rinks at Center Ice in Glen Ellyn, Arctic Ice in Orland Park and MB in Chicago,” CBSH Director Melanie Freeman said. “We were kind of missing a presence in Lake County, and we’re working on growing that.”
CBSH, which was formerly known as Tomahawks Special Hockey, won’t be stopping at moving just into Gurnee. This coming September, Rockford will be the program’s fifth spot.
Freeman was contacted by a parent in Rockford to ask if CBSH would bring its program to their town. Freeman attended a game of the IceHogs — the minor league affiliate of the Blackhawks — and 16 families signed up expressing interest to play if CBSH started up in Rockford.
“Just to see the excitement in the people that they might be able to play hockey, it’s just the best,” Freeman said. “I expect that portion of the program to grow phenomenally.”
Just having wrapped up its 19th season, nothing is slowing down CBSH. It had 140 players this season, ages 5 to 59, and 255 people attended the year-end banquet in mid-April. Those are the highest totals in program history.
Currently, the largest number and majority of participants for CBSH is in Glen Ellyn where there are two sheets of ice. Freeman noted Orland Park has about 30 skaters, MB Ice Arena around 25 and Gurnee is at 10.
Freeman knows expansion will only make CBSH bigger and better.
“I think it’s important because it opens up the opportunities for so many more people with special needs to play hockey,” Freeman said. “Obviously, it’s the greatest sport around and I think there is a difference in sports. Hockey is like a family and it’s like a family where you get embraced by not just our team but all the other teams — that hockey community just embraces all of us. It’s just fantastic.”
In an attempt to attract more players, CBSH runs special Try Hockey for Free events where people can come and use equipment and test out the sport at no charge. The events have attracted crowds in the past and really allow families to see what CBSH is all about and what it offers.
“I think that people would be surprised. I think with hockey, a lot of people think, ‘Oh, my kid can’t do it.’ But I’m here to tell you, they can,” Freeman said. “It’s awesome to see them blossoming and growing. With hockey, you get like their whole family is into hockey and then they have a kid with special needs and they’re like, ‘Oh, they aren’t going to be able to play hockey.’ So, when they find out that there’s a program like this, it’s just so much excitement that you’re not just engaging the players, you’re engaging the whole family.”
Freeman is planning to set up the Try Hockey for Free events in Gurnee and Rockford this summer. No dates have been determined yet. However, they will be in conjunction with the availability of the Blackhawks’ inflatable rink. To find out when dates are set, people can log onto chicagospecialhockey.com.
All four of the CBSH locations hold weekly practices, where volunteer coaches work with the players, that run from September to March. Frequently, the CBSH holds fundraisers and players are able to get out and compete in tournaments. In early April, 38 players participated in the annual USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Festival held this year in Wesley Chapel, Florida.
Having worked with special needs kids for the last 15 years through CBSH, the last three as the director, Freeman loves to see the excitement and smiles players get just being out on the ice.
“I have to tell you, that’s exactly why I do it,” Freeman said. “That hits you in your heart. My son has autism and that’s why I first got involved in the team. I was just a parent bringing a kid to the rink.”
Hockey seems to bring out the best out in those who skate in CBSH. Freeman said so many of the players exude some much empathy to their fellow competitors.
“If someone falls, it doesn’t matter if they’re on their team or the other team, they’ll stop and help them up,” Freeman said. “Everybody celebrates with each other. They’re all happy for everybody’s accomplishments.”
It also brings a smile to Freeman’s face.
“Our kids just love it and they thrive and they grow with it,” Freeman said. “They make friends. It’s a wonderful thing.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.