By Ross Forman
The Chicago Blackhawks Special Hockey team is celebrating 20 years this season, having grown from 5 players at one rink to about 140 players at five different area rinks – with countless memories and millions of smiles along the way.
Special Hockey now operates out of Arctic Ice in Orland Park, Center Ice in Glen Ellyn, Fifth Third Ice Arena in Chicago, Carlson Ice Rink in Rockford and Rink Side Ice Arena in Gurnee.
Special Hockey has grown tremendously in the past 20 years – from no national festivals to 2 National Festivals sponsored by USA Hockey and, for the very first time this year, there are opportunities for some of the Chicago Blackhawks Special Hockey team to make a National Team.
There will be a World Cup in Las Vegas in May and Chicago, potentially, will have players representing the U.S., and competing internationally.
“It’s really mind-boggling when you see how far we have grown,” said Melanie Freeman, 57, a Wisconsin resident and Chicago Blackhawks Special Hockey team director. She has been involved with the team for the past 16 years, first as just a parent because her son (with autism) told her that he was going to be a hockey player. She gradually started volunteering for the local team and eventually replaced the team’s founder, Amy Lapoe, who left when she had an opportunity to move to a national position with USA Hockey.
“Chicago Blackhawks Special Hockey is my hockey family. It’s really the best thing I’ve ever been involved with. It allows me to make a difference in so many lives in such a simple, but meaningful way.”
Chicago Blackhawks Special Hockey provides children and adults with developmental disabilities the opportunity to play hockey. CBSH team members range in age from 5 to 55, and include both male and female athletes. The team is comprised of players who have autism, Down syndrome or other intellectual disabilities.
CBSH strives to promote and emphasize the development of sportsmanship, team spirit, increased confidence, pride, and team unity while having a great time in the process.
“When you see the opportunities our players have received, you cannot help but be emotional,” Freeman said. “I get choked up watching a new skater on ice take their first steps. So much is going on there. The coach, the parents, the skater … these small moments of celebration that are really a huge thing in their lives.
“When you have a child with disabilities, you celebrate every victory. CBSH is here and offers so many victories, big and small. So many friendships that wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the connection of hockey. I’m so very proud to be part of this – to be standing shoulder to shoulder with people like Amy Lapoe, Steve Drews, Angi Paravola, Jack Raslawski, Jim Smith, JJ O’Conner, and others. There are a lot of people who give so much to our players and to our sport. They all take time out of their very busy schedules to make this happen. It’s difficult not to get emotional when you think about it.”
Last season was a year of growth for CBSH. Freeman noted that the group was missing a presence in Lake County, so this past January, CBSH launched at Rink Side in Gurnee.
At the same time, a parent in Rockford contacted Freeman because there was no similar program in that direction.
Sure enough, CBSH is now in Rockford, too.
“(The) Rockford Park District has welcomed us with open arms and even donated ice time,” Freeman said.
“Our goal is to continue to grow and be able to offer these opportunities to many more people. I really would like parents of people with disabilities to know this is not out of reach for them. Hockey is for everyone. If they don’t know how to skate, we will teach them to skate. This team is here to give an opportunity to people with cognitive disabilities to be part of a team experience in a very fun and meaningful way.”
CBSH was started by Amy Lapoe after she moved with her family from St. Louis where her son, Spencer, played special needs hockey with the Gateway Locomotives. There was no Special Hockey team in the Chicago area at the time, so she made connections in the hockey community and made a visit to the Blackhawks. With the support of the Blackhawks, AHAI and USA Hockey, the team was established.
Her son Spencer has Down Syndrome and was very young when Lapoe started him in hockey. “She saw how thrilled he was and how much motivation it could offer him and she didn’t want to let that go just because she moved to another city,” Freeman said. “She’s a woman of action and she started the team with just five players.”
Freeman also ventured into CBSH through her son: Evan, now 27.
“He was 11 when he started (and) it was an all-consuming passion for him,” she said. “He knew that he was going to be a hockey player and he took me along for the ride. At that time, I had no idea how much my life would grow because of that. It’s amazing.”
Freeman admitted she was “scared (and) had my doubts” when Evan first joined CBSH.
“He already knew how to skate, thank goodness, because he’s always been a pretty big guy. We had built a rink for him in the backyard because he wanted to play hockey,” Freeman said. “When he told me that he was going to play on a real team, I thought, how the heck am I going to make that happen. Luckily for me the team was already there, (then known as) the Tomahawks at that time.
“Having a child with autism I was used to being right there, just in case. (But) they took him from me and basically said ‘We got this.’ I didn’t know how they were going to make him follow directions or even learn the rules of the game. But they knew what they were doing and he loved it, and I felt like I could breathe and relax while he was on ice.
“It was powerful.”
Freeman is now always rink side – for all the kids, not just her own.
“I get to watch kids, many who have sensory issues, skate for the first time,” she said. “Many struggle and cry because they are scared, then they grow into these wonderful hockey players. They develop a great sense of self-esteem because they are hockey players and they are doing something that maybe they didn’t realize they could do.
“I (also) see tentative parents, who think their kids can’t play hockey, become surprised, thrilled and so proud of their players. I see them all embrace the fact that they have found a place where they belong.
“I’m truly blessed to be able to be a part of that.”
CBSH has numerous major events upcoming:
** The Madison (Wisconsin) Disabled Fest is Oct. 19-20.
“Madison is always a fun event for us,” Freeman said. “We have about 40 players making the trip and have a great relationship with the Madison Timberwolves Special Hockey team. This is a regional disabled festival, so we should see players from Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. It’s a fun time and will allow some of our newer players to get experience playing at a festival.”
** The annual Bowl-A-Thon Fundraiser is Saturday, Oct. 26, at Brunswick Zone in Glendale Heights, starting at 7 p.m.
“It’s going to be a fun event with raffles and prizes,” Freeman said. “We operate as a non-profit, so we try to raise funds so we are able to offer scholarships to families that may not be able to afford to play. We also use these funds to assist families in traveling to national USA Hockey events. We have two that we participate in, the Special Hockey Classic in November and the USA Hockey Disabled Festival in March.
“Many of our players have extensive medical issues, so we fundraise so they can participate in these events without it being a burden. It makes a difference when someone may have to choose between participating or paying some medical bills. Our CBSH families all help in our fundraising efforts.”
** The Special Hockey Classic is Nov. 8-10 at the Ice Vault Arena in Wayne, N.J.
“The best part about going to the Special Hockey Classic is the sense of camaraderie with all teams,” Freeman said. “We will see teams at the Classic from all over the United States and hopefully Canada, too. We have fun on and off the ice. It’s an opportunity for our players to travel with the team. It’s expensive to do this, so we work to pay for the hotel rooms for the families that can make the trip.”
** United Center
CBSH has an annual game night on the ice at the home of the Blackhawks.
“As you can imagine, the United Center is a huge event for our group,” Freeman said. “Everyone – players, coaches and parents – are so excited to be able to participate in this event. The Chicago Blackhawks are so good to us. We bring the biggest group of Junior Hawk players down to the United Center and they support us. There is a limited group of people that can say they played a game at the United Center – and our players are part of that group. You can’t really get much more inclusive than that.
“We are all major Blackhawks fans and they have always taken such good care of us. You know when you talk about what makes our team run, it’s more than just the people that run the day to day events. It’s the people who help us with our special events, (such as) Annie Camins, Spencer Montgomery, Laura Jordan and Matt Brooks with the Blackhawks staff. Not only do they make sure we get to have our UC event, they support us and offer us so much more help than that. They are in a true partnership with us.”
The United Center brings memories, but so do every other on-ice moment. And some off-ice times, too.
“One of my favorite stories involves one of our players, George, a couple of years ago at the Disabled Festival in West Dundee,” Freeman said. “The Leafs adopted our team and came out to watch all of their games. George (scored) a hat trick and the Leafs’ players cheered. When he came off the ice, they treated him like a superstar. They asked him to sign their jerseys. He was a star. It was incredible.
“Another (memory was when) the Blackhawks reached out to me for one of our players to be on the ice during the national anthem (for) their future stars program. We selected Zach Millard, and it awesome. The Blackhawks all high-fived him. It brought tears to my eyes to watch.”
Emotions always are strong with CBSH. “We’ve got some of the happiest kids playing on our team, (such as) Gavin, Ryan, Patrick, Noah, Peter, Olivia … it’s the same story with all of them. They start off scared, maybe not knowing how to skate and then this becomes a huge part of who they are. They go to school and tell their teachers, ‘I am a hockey player!’ It gives them an identity. They get to play a sport that maybe their brother or sister (also) plays, on a team that travels and plays games.”
Some of the players have been with CBSH for years. Many grow and eventually become mentors to the younger players. That truly is an emotional moment, Freeman said.
“Players like Brandon, Daniel, Tim and Kevin … they are all adults, but when they come to practice, they take on an additional role, a peer mentor to our younger players. It makes me proud to be part of this hockey family,” she said.
The coaches also are an integral part of CBSH. Longtime IHOA referee Steve Drews is the hockey director and head coach at Glen Ellyn.
“He devotes so much time and effort to our team, taking additional time to coach some players that hope to compete on the national team,” Freeman said. “Bob Taylor just stepped up and is head coach at Orland Park. He’s been involved in the program longer than I have and has always coached, but now he’s got a lot on his shoulders heading up Orland.
“Jack Raslawski is heading up our Gurnee team; April Fryza has been with the program for 19 years and heads up our Chicago location; Mike Riley (is the) head coach in Rockford.
“All of our coaching staff does so much heavy lifting and all for the love of the game.”
Freeman added: “I want to thank all of the hockey teams that step up to play with us and help us fund-raise. Every time we schedule a fundraising game, that allows us to take more players to a National event and to continue to grow our program. We’ve got upcoming games this year (against) the Eagles, Leafs, Vipers, and Vikings … all of these teams help us in so many ways and they provide a fun, exciting experience for our players.
“Glacier Ice Rink (in Vernon Hills) gives us ice for our Thanksgiving tournament every year. We have several coaches that have no players out there, but they come every week to help. Efren, Ryan, Malisa, John, Ken, Igor, Ariel, Matt, Ashley and more … without their help we wouldn’t be doing the things we are doing and growing the way we are.
“There are so many great and giving people in hockey. We appreciate all of them.”
Freeman added, “The growth I see in these kids is also amazing. I want all our junior coaches to know how very proud I am every time I see them working with our players. It’s not for everyone, but the junior coaches we have display empathy and yet know when to push our players to do better. Just having them as role models is so important for our program. They make coming to practice or a game so much fun for our players.
Ross Forman has written about Illinois high school hockey for more than 15 years and is the only sportswriter to have covered Illinois High School hockey every year during that stretch. He played locally and then at Indiana University before becoming a referee. Ross was a referee for the State Championship game several years ago at the United Center. Contact Ross by email at Rossco814@aol.com.