Published: 2/12/2012

Young hockey stars, fans light up Ottawa Park rink

BY NOLAN ROSENKRANS

BLADE STAFF WRITER

The Michigan FAR Flyers' boosters are a boisterous bunch, even when goals are hard to come by.

Despite temperatures in the teens during the outdoor hockey game Saturday, and a stone wall in the other team's net, fans hooted, hollered, and rang cow bells. They even did the wave.

As the B-team for the southeast Michigan special hockey program battled the Detroit MORC Stars, more experienced members shouted encouraging words and critiques at their teammates from inside a building at the Ottawa Park Ice Rink, where it was warm.

"Come on, move your feet!"

"What kind of pass was that?"

"Nice move!"

The inaugural UCT Winter Hockey Festival kicked off Saturday. Event organizers said nine teams from Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia participated. Mayor Mike Bell dropped the opening puck.

The festival was for special hockey, a sport geared toward players with developmental disabilities. Many of the skaters Saturday had some form of autism or Down syndrome, said Tony Szymczak. UCT community outreach manager.

The event was a first for the Order of United Commercial Travelers of America, a fraternal benefit society, which partnered with the American Special Hockey Association for the festival. The round-robin tournament went smoothly for an inaugural event, and even got weather that could be considered ideal for an outdoor hockey tournament.

"We got everything we wanted," Mr. Szymczak said.

In many ways, special hockey parallels the traditional game with its ice, skates, sticks, and nets. But special hockey recasts most rules, such as icing and offsides. In the lesser-skilled leagues, even more rules are ignored; at times, seven players took the ice for the FAR Flyers.

The looser rules also help create rather diverse lineups. Both girls and boys played, and teams had players of various ages and heights.

Although special hockey is technically noncontact, there were plenty of unintended collisions between players,al though no one seemed to get hurt seriously.

Mr. Szymczak said he hopes to have the festival become an annual event and wants to see a Toledo team created.

The sport is a chance for team play that those with developmental disabilities often normally wouldn't get, Mike Hickey, president of the hockey association, said. It also serves as good physical therapy and good coordination practice.

"Hockey is always moving," he said.

Jon Reinheimer is an avid hockey fan who for three years was the equipment manager for his high school's hockey team.

After he graduated, a friend told him about the Michigan FAR Flyers, and he recently joined. He's still learning how to play the game; his father, Steven Reinheimer, said Jon, who has Asperger syndrome and ADHD, generally plays forward because "that's the only direction he can skate."

Jon's face lights up when he steps onto the ice, his mother, Debbie Reinheimer, said. "Now, he gets to play, instead of just watching and filling up water bottles," she said.

Games continue Sunday at the Ottawa Park Ice Rink.

Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: nrosenkrans@theblade.com or 419-724-6086