Special needs team skates to success

Nicole Williams, 16, waits to take a turn on the ice. She is one of seven girls playing for the Tomahawks, Illinois’ only special needs hockey team.

Spencer LaPoe has Down syndrome, but that doesn’t stop him from lacing up his skates and slipping on his red, white and blue team jersey for an hour of hockey practice every Saturday.

Spencer, 12, plays with the Tomahawks, the only special needs hockey team in Illinois, and one of only a handful in the country. Practices, which teach basic skills such as skating, puck handling and passing, are the “highlight of the week,” says his mom, Amy LaPoe, who founded the team three years ago.

“Many of our players don’t know how to skate before they join and, especially when you’re physically challenged, it gives you a sense of pride, achievement and confidence to master skills,” she says.

Spencer played hockey with the Gateway Locomotives, a special needs team in St. Louis, before a job transfer brought the family to Naperville. LaPoe approached the Chicago Blackhawks with the idea of creating a team in Chicago.

With the help of Amateur Hockey Association Illinois, one of the Chicago Blackhawk Charities, the Tomahawks skated through their first season in March 2000 with five kids. Today, nearly 40 teammates, ranging in age from 5 to 41, play ice hockey from September to March, and inline hockey in June and July.

This season, the Tomahawks were invited to play at the Bantam Gold Vikings’ Thanksgiving tournament in Orland Park. The team of 12- and 13-year-olds made sure they lost to the Tomahawks. “The Vikings set our kids up so they can feel what it’s like to score in a big game,” says Heather Saylor of Naperville. “For young kids to have that kind of giving spirit teaches so much. It’s wonderful to see that kind of generosity, not pity.”

Terry Ford of Orland Park, whose son Jack, 10, plays on the team, says one of the greatest benefits is that no one ever fails. “It’s all positive,” she says. “In 2½ years, Jack’s learned how to skate; now he’s starting to learn some stick handling. It’s a slow go, but the coaches never gave up on this kid. All kids have different gifts, and on this team, the coaches have the patience to unwrap those gifts.”

The team also has become a sort of support group for siblings. “Jack’s sister gets to root for him. It’s a real family event. It’s also good for the siblings to see that they’re not the only one with a brother or sister with special needs,” Ford says.

Tomahawks head coach J.P. Bordeleau, whose father played hockey for the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1970s, has been with the team almost since its inception. “The kids have an unconditional love of hockey. There’s no animosity, no jealousy. They play because they have a passion for the sport,” he says. “Sometimes it takes a full year to get our players used to wearing hockey gear and walking along the side of the boards on skates. But it’s phenomenal to watch them get better every season.”

Other head coaches include Mike LeBarre, also director of inline hockey for USA Hockey; Tim Gabel, who coordinates tournament play and student coaching volunteers; and Efren Molina, who runs the summer inline hockey program. And there are nine parents who volunteer as assistant coaches–an important component of a program that includes players of various ages, sizes and skill levels, says LaPoe.

Tom Lewaniak of Lombard, whose son Tony, 15, couldn’t skate when he joined the team, sees hockey as a positive force both on and off the ice. “Eighteen months after joining the team, through the patience and perseverance of the coaches, Tony started to skate on his own. Let me tell you, there was not a dry eye in the house,” he says.

Success on the ice translates to success off the ice as well. Tomahawk David Rosario, 17, of Naperville was named manager of the hockey team at Neuqua Valley High School, where he attends school, and will earn a letter in hockey because of his affiliation with both teams.

Kathy Williams of Downers Grove, whose daughter Nicole, 16, is one of seven girls on the team, says the friendships Nicole has made are important. “Nicole has gained the self-confidence to go out every week and skate. She also joined the high school swim team and swam the whole season.”

Heather Saylor says her son Ben, 9, has made great friends through hockey, and that playing hockey supports all parts of his life. In addition, Ben uses his inline skating skills to play street hockey with the kids in his neighborhood. “Our kids are seen as hockey players, not as kids with special needs,” she says.

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