It is not unusual for the BYU hockey team to play on a Saturday at Peaks Ice Arena, and at first glance this game looked no different than any other. However, upon closer examination, this game was far from ordinary.
The Cougars took the ice against the Utah Junior Grizzlies special needs hockey team Saturday Jan. 16. The Junior Grizzlies are a local team that features players ages 7–36 with varying disabilities.
“It’s good for my players to be grateful for what they’ve got,” BYU hockey head coach Ed Gantt said. “Over time my players get to know some of the kids and it’s amazing to see the changes. I can’t describe how much fun and how satisfying it is to play with them.”
Hockey mom Natalie Wright has two children on the Junior Grizzlies team. Her 15-year-old son Matthew has autism and her 10-year-old daughter Evie is hearing-impaired. When she and her husband, Dallin, heard about the team, they weren’t sure it would be a real possibility for their children.
“We put Evie on the ice with her blonde pigtails hanging out of her helmet and all of her padding on and we just thought ‘They’re going to take her down: there’s no way,’” Wright said. “But she’s done great. Our kids have never gotten hurt and they play very gently.”
Regardless of disability, participating on the team has helped its members develop essential motor and social skills, things that may be hard to develop otherwise.
“It’s helped with muscle strength, it’s helped with balance,” Wright said. “It’s been great socially, too. My kids really feel like they fit in. They’ve made a lot of great friendships.”
Deann Torsak, one of the managers for the Junior Grizzlies, said he loves seeing the progress of the children over the years.
“For one boy, the first year he would not keep anything on,” Torsak said. “It would take two people to get him out on the ice. Slowly but surely over the years, he’s gotten to the point where he can skate on the ice himself and he keeps his gear on. A lot of these kids have come a long way.”
Torsak also noted that these kids do more than just skate around cones and do drills. The coaches push them and help them learn the hockey rules and lingo. They participate in real games to help teach them discipline.
“My favorite saying is ‘Don’t diss ability,'” Torsak said. “They can do it. They just need to be pushed a little sometimes.”
The team practices every Saturday and looks forward to opportunities to play games with local high school teams. Eileen Wood, whose children Toby and Darius play on the team, said it was a treat for the kids to play BYU.
“My husband is a big BYU fan and my kids were really excited,” Wood said. “They just wanted to crush BYU.”
It’s also a great experience for the BYU team to provide such a special day for the team. BYU players Chase Christensen and Teagan Pitcher remember scrimmaging with the Junior Grizzlies when they were in high school.
“When we used to practice with them all the time it was fun to see them develop and become better players,” Pitcher said. “I can remember when I was that age and everything was exciting about hockey. It’s just fun to be out on the ice with them and watch them have fun.”
The BYU team played an hour-long match with the Junior Grizzlies. Every player left the rink with a smile. The excitement generated on the ice was hard to ignore. Christensen said that the team was just happy to provide the Junior Grizzlies with the opportunity.
“It’s just fun,” Christensen said. “They don’t have the same abilities as us but they’re out there trying their hardest and it’s fun to see them get excited when they score. Before the game some of them were saying, ‘We love BYU but it’s gonna be bad, we’re gonna beat them today!’ We’re happy we could provide this experience today.”