September 29, 2020

BY RYAN BOWMAN

On an autumn weekend in 1994, a group of developmentally challenged hockey players gathered at a community rink in St. Louis, Mo., for the inaugural Special Hockey International (SHI) tournament.

Nearly 20 years later, Kitchener played host to what has become one of the largest celebrations of special needs athletes in the world.

Held from March 14 to 16, the event featured 60 teams and nearly 1,000 players from across Canada, the United States and England. Over the course of the three-day tournament, a total of 120 games were played at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium and the Activa Sportsplex.

John Thompson, chair of the tournament’s host committee, admitted he had no idea what he was getting into when he agreed to spearhead the organization of the event nearly four years ago.

“Like a lot of people, I didn’t really know anything about special hockey,” he said. “But once I learned a little bit more, it was something that pulled at my heart strings pretty easily, and I knew I wanted to be involved.”

Adapted specifically for players with developmental delays or special needs, special hockey varies from the traditional sport in several ways.

There is no contact, no icing and no offsides. There are no tryouts. The emphasis is not on winning and losing, but on making friends and having fun.

Most importantly, special hockey transcends age and ability level. Participants as young as five years old may face off against fully grown adults, and individuals new to the sport may skate for an entire game with the assistance of an on-ice aide.

Thompson, who was a member of the city’s Memorial Cup organizing committee in 2008, said planning the SHI tournament presented its share of challenges.

“It was a significant learning experience for all of us to understand what the word special means in special hockey,” he said. “From how we timed and scheduled our games to how we fed everybody, we knew we had to approach this differently than if it was a Bantam triple-A tournament.”

That approach included a number of unique off-ice initiatives which Thompson referred to as “wow factors.”

The biggest addition to this year’s tournament was Hockey Avenue, a series of exhibits lining the concourse of the Aud. Players, coaches, families and spectators could do everything from bid on autographed NHL jerseys in a silent auction to test the speed of their slapshot or sing karaoke.

Each team also had a local sport celebrity serve as their honourary captain and a local rally team – a group of citizens who cheered them on at the opening ceremony and all of their games.

All 946 players also received goodie-filled gift bags before their first game and shiny participation medals following their last.

“We could have thrown these kids on a pond in St. Jacob’s, set up two nets and they would have had a great time,” Thompson said. “But we really wanted it to be about more than just the hockey.”

Equipped with a team of more than 200 volunteers, Thompson said he began preparing for the event nearly a full year in advance. His objectives from the outset were simple.

“We wanted to put on the best tournament we could, and we wanted to raise awareness about the sport of special hockey.”

Kirsten Carr, director of special hockey operations for the Kitchener Minor Hockey Association, said both of those objectives were achieved “tenfold.”

“All weekend, I heard nothing but good things,” said Carr, who also serves as general manager of Kitchener’s special needs team, the Ice Pirates. “I feel honoured to have been a part of it – not only as a member of the Ice Pirates, but also as a member of this community.”

According to Carr, the tournament was as beneficial for the general public as it was for the participants.

“I think this will help others understand that people with developmental delays are able to do things, that they’re capable of playing sports,” she said. “I hope that’s the legacy this tournament will leave behind.”