I would guess in my three or four years of being an ice hockey official I have done hundreds of games. The players have been as young as five and actually there is one guy who plays men’s league who is around 70.
So it’s safe to say I have seen a lot of games. And I’ve seen a lot of players. But the experience I had Saturday night at Ice Line in West Chester will probably stick with me for a long, long time.
USA Hockey’s 9th annual National Disabled Festival at Ice Line started March 21 and ended Sunday. The Festival encompassed all four disciplines of disabled hockey which includes deaf/hard of hearing hockey, special hockey, sled hockey and standing/amputee hockey.
My game was with the hearing impaired. I got to the rink about 40 minutes ahead of the game time figuring I’d better get some idea of the rules since there are special rules. The hearing impaired team was playing a group of players from the Quakers hockey club which plays at Ice Line regularly. In fact, I have officiated a couple of their games this season and actually recognized a few of the players.
The rules were pretty much the same with a couple significant differences. For example, when I or my partner blew our whistles or a goal was scored someone in the scorekeeping area activated sets of strobe lights that were set up around the rink area. That would signal the hearing impaired players.
The strangest rule – one which I chuckled a little about – was that in the second period, no one on the ice except us officials could talk. Not any player or any coach on either team.
As a referee, what a pleasure that would be on a regular basis if no one could talk: no complaining, no arguing calls, no coaches yelling, no players raising their arms and screaming for a penalty call. But alas, Saturday night it was for one period only.
Also, the Quakers players had to wear earplugs, the purpose being that maybe then they could sort of understand what it’s like to be hearing impaired.
Kudos to the Quakers team by the way. The hearing impaired squad had players that ranged from very, very young to older, high school aged kids – boys and girls. When the little guys were out on the ice the Quakers kids gave them the ice, didn’t steal the puck and actually allowed them to stickhandle in and take a shot or two. It was the ultimate in sportsmanship and made me proud of them.
However, when the big kids were out on the ice together, it was very competitive. And that’s the way it should have been. Someone who has a handicap or a disability wants to be treated the same way as anyone else whether it’s in life or sports. And as a referee I called several penalties on the older kids – from both teams. No breaks or special treatment. (OK, I do admit to not calling a little, little guy way, way offsides with about 30 seconds to go in the game. I just didn’t have the heart…)
During the game, however, we called it like a regular game – and the players appreciated it.
For myself, I did commit a few really dumb things. For instance, while on the ice (so I don’t get run over because it has happened more than a few times) I will yell to players where I am, behind them, near them, etc. Well, obviously if someone has a hearing issue they’re not hearing me. I did that more than a couple of times. Also yelling that a play is onsides didn’t help either is the players can’t hear. Hand signals which we also use as part of play were critical in this case.
So with all of the technical issues explained, what did I really learn by doing this game? Well, I learned that despite the sore legs and sore back after reffing a bunch of games, and despite any of the aches and pains of being 50-something or anything like that, I am a very lucky person. No, I don’t have disabilities like these kids have. I am blessed in that way.
But these kids are blessed as well. They have decided that despite having hearing issues they’re not going to not get on the ice. They have overcome their roadblocks and have become very good hockey players.
And if that wasn’t enough, you just had to take a stroll through Ice Line hallways during the Festival. There were hundreds of players with all of their gear. Some players had no limbs, some were severely disabled, some left you wondering how the heck they do what they do. But if you listened closely, you didn’t hear complaining or self-pity. You heard stories of past games, you heard game strategy, how they were going to pass a certain way, plays to use in their next game.
They are athletes. Not athletes maybe like the rest of us without disabilities. But they are athletes with pride, inner strength and a will to show the world they are just the same as anyone else.
They succeeded. And I was honored to be part of it. And I hope I am asked to be part of it again if the Festival returns to West Chester. I may officiate tons of more games but Saturday night’s game will always remain one of my favorites. I learned how to appreciate what I have. We all should as well.
— Andy Hachadorian