Steel City Icebergs hockey team offers unique opportunity for special needs players
When the Steel City Icebergs special hockey team opened its season last weekend against the visiting special Columbus Blue Jackets, official scores and statistics were not kept.
Players were on the rink strictly for enjoyment, said Stephanie Maust, president of the Greater Pittsburgh Special Hockey Association, which sponsors the Icebergs.
“It’s non-competitive,” said Maust of Butler, who founded the association in 2009 after seeing her son’s teammate struggle to play because of a developmental problem. “If we give trophies, we give one to everybody.”
Men and women are invited to join the Icebergs regardless of age, disability or skating ability. This year’s squad has 30 members ranging in age from 4 to 5 to their 30s, Maust said.
Weekly practices and home games are in the Robert Morris University Island Sports Center on Neville Island. Grants provided by the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation help pay for equipment, uniforms, travel and ice time.
A member of the USA Hockey organization and the American Special Hockey Association, the squad is scheduled to play several times this year, although team members are not required to participate. The Icebergs plan to cap the season in April at the USA Disabled Hockey Festival in Buffalo.
A hardship committee helps athletes pay USA Hockey membership fees, chairman Michael Carr said.
Allowed to work at their own pace, players are easy to guide, said director of coaching Jarron Gass. They learn to skate with the aid of a walker and are taught stick and puck handling and other fundamentals.
“It’s very laid-back,” coach Mark Nous said.
Volunteers include first-year Penguins goaltender Thomas Greiss, who has attended three practices since September.
Greiss, 28, enjoys working with youngsters.
“I always like to get on the ice and play hockey with kids,” he said. “It’s a fun time for me as much as (it is for them).”
Penguins foundation president Dave Soltesz likes the social interaction the team provides.
“It gets (players) out of their shell,” Soltesz said.
Allen Hopkins, 6, of Midland, Beaver County, enjoys playing offense with a stick and in skates bearing the name of Penguins star Sidney Crosby.
“I like to score,” he said.
Lin Lewis said her son, Dalton Nuzzo, 6, of McKeesport, feels bad when missing a practice.
“Just to see my son and others out there weekly on the ice smile, laugh and have fun is a joy,” Lewis said. “(Their) coming together and learning how to socialize and play the game is awesome.”
“It’s wonderful to see players make new friends and learn new skills,” parent liaison Chris Weber said.
For details on the Steel City Icebergs, visit www.pittsburghspecialhockey.org.
Karen Kadilak is a freelance writer.