UNIVERSITY PARK — When Cindy Wolf moved her family back to State College from Northern Virginia in 2005, something was missing.
Wolf’s three children had become accustomed to involvement in a hockey league for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. For two years, she made as many trips back and forth as possible to allow them to participate and watch, but it eventually got to be too much.
When Wolf tried to start a State College team, she was deterred by the lack of ice in the area; there was only one rink in Penn State’s Greenberg Ice Pavilion.
But now that the Pegula Ice Arena has doubled the amount of ice in Centre County, Wolf is shooting to start a local special hockey program by next fall.
She said the laid-back nature of the sport made two of her kids feel comfortable, allowing them to get physical activity and have camaraderie with other players. The teams don’t keep formal score or standings and focus on just having fun.
“When we were in Northern Virginia, special hockey was the only sport that embraced my son,” she said.
To give locals a taste of the sport, the American Special Hockey Association conducted demonstrations with some other Pennsylvania teams on Saturday and Sunday.
ASHA President Mike Hickey said he is impressed with the facility and thinks special hockey could find a home in State College. There are 46 programs and the teams play against each other in a noncompetitive way in regional tournaments.
Each program tries to keep it as inexpensive as possible, ranging from totally free to a couple hundred dollars per year, he said.
The games take out some conventional rules like offside and icing infractions, allowing a more free-flowing game, Hickey said. The program accepts people from age 5 to adults, and there are three separate divisions that vary in skill level from those who have never skated before to those who could be competitive with local recreational leagues, he added.
Organizers like to get the participants some practice time at least once a week.
During the demonstration Sunday, teams from Bucks County and Philadelphia played at Pegula to give local parents a look at a game.
Wolf’s daughter Rachel laced up skates for the first time in five years and was able to move around on the ice without needing to be held up. Wolf said the skating skills that Rachel learned transitioned into other areas like skiing, which Rachel has picked up in recent years.
She added that the weekly practices or tournaments also provide a support system and social time for the parents.
“You don’t have to explain yourself or your child,” she said. “Everybody totally gets it.”
Wolf said she heard from about a dozen interested people this weekend, which is more than she expected. She’s opening up the program to anyone in the central part of the state because there are no other programs in the area.
Hickey said it’s good to start the first year with about 12-15 people before expanding. He said the biggest program, which is located in Detroit, has about 125 people.
Yvonne Walk, of Tyrone, brought her 8-year-old son, Cameron, to the demonstration Sunday to check it out because he said he has an interest in learning to skate.
She said she likes the carefree nature of the game and thinks it would be good for kids with special needs.
“Regular hockey would be a little overwhelming, but this is a little more relaxed,” she said.
Now Wolf needs to find volunteers, get equipment and arrange ice time before the program kicks off.
She said she has had some productive conversations with Penn State, other teams and potential volunteers, but there is still some work to do.
She needs to find a coach and hopes to develop a partnership with Penn State so it can support and promote the program.