Last Updated: March 26. 2010 6:37PM

'Special' hockey is breaking out across the state

Gregg Krupa / The Detroit News

Hazel Park --Adam Egrin laced-up his skates in a musty dressing room full of teammates from the Michigan FAR Flyers hockey team.

"I play center," said Egrin, 15, of Southfield. "It's just a great bunch of guys who get to play. I like the speed of the game. It's a great game."

Like many of his teammates, Egrin says he's looking forward to this weekend, when the FAR Flyers will play the Brampton Battalion, from Ontario, and the Columbus Blue Jackets, from Ohio, in a four-game tournament starting at 1 p.m., Saturday, at the Hazel Park Arena, in what is the first hockey tournament featuring all special needs athletes to be hosted by a team in Michigan.

Yes!" said forward Anthony Kucharski, 18, of Royal Oak. "We are going to kick their butts!"

A pioneering local hockey team, the Michigan FAR Flyers is in the vanguard of the expansion of "special hockey" -- for athletes with developmental disabilities -- which is beginning to experience considerable growth, nationally and internationally. After 25 years of teaching people with special needs to skate and play hockey, the fact other teams made up of athletes with such disabilities are available for a tournament is evidence of the movement's burgeoning success.

USA Hockey, the umbrella group for organized hockey, lists 817 "special hockey players" in the country, up from a few hundred several years ago.

There's an increasing number of teams for special needs athletes, including potential start-ups in Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids, as well as teams in Canada and Great Britain that are beginning to allow for special needs teams to play each other, as opposed to setting up scrimmages with willing, local teams.

"This will be the first time a Canadian or USA special needs team has visited the Flyers' home rink for a tournament such as this," said Ben Niemiec, the FAR Flyers coach credited by players, parents and others with contributing to significant changes in the lives of athletes with special needs.

Parents, athletes and coaches say the discipline, goal-setting, accomplishments and confidence-building of sport is as important for the disabled as for anyone else -- if not more so.

"He's getting all kinds of inspiration," said Cheryl Taylor, of Sterling Heights, of her son Trevor, 22, who has Down's syndrome. "He has brothers who play hockey. His dad plays hockey. He's always gone to watch them play, and now that he can do hockey it's opened up a whole new world for him."

Said Carol Schwanger, the disabled sports director of the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association: "A lot of kids with impulse control issues learn life lessons -- like accepting that when you get a two-minute penalty you have to sit it out. You can not participate.

"Part of it is discipline. And it helps physically, a lot."

Improving skills

While the tournament this weekend is a first of its kind in Michigan, special hockey teams from around the country play in annual tournaments, including the USA Disabled Hockey Festival in Maryland (April 8-11) and the Special Hockey International Tournament in Ontario (April 15-17).

Members of the Michigan FAR Flyers began participating in the Special Hockey International Tournament in 2003. But hosting their tournament this weekend is a significant step forward.

"It's great socialization, with the kids," said Colleen Kucharski of Royal Oak, Anthony's mother. "Anthony's developed so many skills. It's even helped with his speech, getting along with other kids.

"I don't think it's any different from any other athletes, and they really look up to their peers."

The Michigan FAR Flyers are largely sponsored by the FAR Conservatory in Birmingham, which since 1953 had established programs in the arts, recreation and leisure for children and adults with special needs.

"FAR stands for fun, arts and recreation," said Arlene Kass, executive director of the FAR Conservatory. "What we're trying to do when we put in an activity like hockey is to give people with disabilities or special needs a leisure activity that they can do for their whole life, just like everyone else.

"If you look out on that ice, we have kids who are 12 and we have men who are in their 40s. It's keeping them off the couch. It's keeping them healthy. And it's giving them small and large coordination activities that they need to enhance other skills in their lives."

Fund-raising help

The Michigan FAR Flyers eventually became leaders of a trend.

The MORC Stars hockey team was formed in 2007 for developmentally-disabled athletes as part of a partnership between the Macomb-Oakland Regional Center and a former professional player, Peter Ciavaglia.

Word is circulating in Grand Rapids about efforts for a special hockey team. And in Ann Arbor, Dance Marathon, a charity in which students at the University of Michigan participate, donated financing last week to start a special hockey team.

"I was just really very blessed to be given some funds," said the organizer, Jacqueline Kaufman, who is on the faculty and the staff at University Hospital, where she works with patients who have congenital and acquired disabilities of the brain. "I play hockey in a rec league, so I have people volunteering, youth hockey players and others, who want to help out.

"I also had the opportunity to meet Ben Niemiec with the FAR Flyers. The kids had more heart than I thought was possible, and it is great fun to watch."

She said organizing the special hockey team in Ann Arbor may take some time. She said she is busy developing lists of necessary resources, like equipment and ice time. But Kaufman hopes to have athletes playing hockey as soon as this summer.

"I play, and it gives me so much joy, I can't stand it," she said. "And I just thought everyone should play, and there are a lot of kids who don't have the same opportunity, which isn't fair.

"I feel like everybody should play hockey, if at all possible."

Our team captain tying up opponent in front of our veteran goalie, while one of our forwards helps clear the puck.

gkrupa@detnews.com (313) 222-2631