It Was A Special Hockey Day At Nassau Coliseum
The New York Islanders were playing host yesterday for what would be a very special experience for many hockey fans. And no, I am not referring to the banner raising ceremony as Pat Flatley would be inducted to the Islanders Hall of Fame before the puck dropped against the Buffalo Sabres. Instead, I am talking about the Long Island Blues and a few other teams that were their opponents as the Nassau Coliseum was hosting "Special Hockey Day," a day in which teams that have players with special needs play organized hockey on a professional rink.
The Long Island Blues played as the home town squads for the Islanders with several friends and family in attendance to watch in support. A total of six teams played three games before they all took the ice together in a skills clinic that was led by New York Islanders alumni, Benoit Hogue. They also were able to skate on the ice in between periods of the Islanders/Sabres game to take shots on their goaltenders at both ends of the rink to cap off a perfect day of hockey.
The teams involved were the Long Island Blues, New York Raptors, East Coast Jumbos, Nova Coolcats, Fearless Flyers and the Bucks County Admirals. The Isles teamed up with the American Special Hockey Associations (ASHA) for the second year in a row to provide these kids with an experience they will most likely never forget.
"It's a big deal. She loves hockey. Loves, loves hockey. It's just amazing that they let them do this," said Gayle Maginniss, the mother of 15-year old Erica Maginniss who plays for the Long Island Blues. She was accompanied by her husband Ron and younger daughter, Kimberly.
"Huge Islanders fans," Gayle continued in reference to her family. "She has John Tavares fat heads on her wall. Her room is blue and orange. She really loves hockey. She knows every player on every team in the whole NHL. This is a really big deal for her. She's the only one sitting out there on the bench, she's waiting to play."
One aspect of my life that most of my readers may not know about is that I work as a Teacher's Assistant at The Hagedorn Little Village School, an elementary school for students with disabilities. Classrooms range from pre-school to school-aged with all students possessing different personalities and abilties despite the obstacles that they face every day. As an assistant, I was able to partake in the joy that the Maginniss family was experiencing when they saw their daughter take the ice. Gayle had to fight back tears just from the first questions I asked her, not out of sadness, but out of appreciation. I can honestly say that there is nothing more rewarding than seeing the happiness and joy a family receives when they see their child participate in an activity like this one.
Although I was just a spectator for this event, I was there for my own reasons as well. There were some Little Village alumni participating in this game, and the New York Islanders gave our school 10 tickets to the game vs. the Sabres in an effort to get some of our staff to come and support the Long Island Blues.
"It's a great feeling to see any of our students be able to take part in mainstream activities, to enjoy themselves, to reach their potential, and it's nice to know that there's a program out there for our kids," said Jon Feingold, the Executive Director of the Hagedorn Little Village School.
Little Village has a good relationship with the New York Islanders, as this is not the first time that they have worked with them for school-related functions.
"Well it's great to see them give back to the community," Feingold continued. "And near and dear to our hearts at Little Village, it's nice that they have an interest in helping out a school with special needs, and as you mentioned the Islanders have helped us and have been kind to us in terms of generously donating items, and some of their personnel came to our golf tournament last year and they were a great group of guys. It was really nice to see them take an interest in our families."
The New York Islanders are very well known for their outreach to community functions such as this one. Players are always seen visiting schools to promote education and even visiting children who have to live in hospitals. These actions speak volumes of the team's integrity and desire to show that it takes more than just a shift on the ice to be a professional athlete. And the best part is that it goes beyond the current roster.
"When she did this last year, Bob Nystrom was helping her skate," said Ron Maginniss. "We got some good pictures of her with Bobby Nystrom and Benoit Hogue was here too."
They were pleasantly surprised when I told them that Hogue would be on the ice again after all the games had been played.
The group effort from the New York Islanders, the ASHA and all the team's that participated illustrates that hockey can be used to provide support for families to enjoy a memorable day with their children in an experience that only few are lucky to share. It's groups like these that Little Village likes to see as opportunities for their graduates to participate in once they have moved on to other educational vocations.
"We want to see as few barriers for our kids as possible," said Jon Feingold. "All of our kids have different abilities but we want to see them have the opportunity to enter into any arenas, whether be them academic, social, athletic, cultural, so the more opportunities for them to take part in activities the better, because our kids deserve to be a part of all these things."
Well, yesterday they got to skate in a professional sports arena with former NHL greats in front of thousands of fans. How many of you can say you get to do that every year?