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Gerry Letourneau Helps All Rhode Island Kids Get a Chance to Play

By Mike Scandura - Special to USAHockey.com, 12/01/16, 9:45AM MST

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Founder of Rhode Island Special Hockey works to give equal opportunities

Rhode Island Special Hockey Director Gerry Letourneau and his wife have two biological children and four that they’ve adopted.

One of their adopted daughters lives with autism.

Around the same time that his daughter was diagnosed with the disorder, Letourneau happened upon an influential story in USA Hockey Magazine.

“I read in the magazine about a special hockey program in Michigan and said, ‘I can do that,’” said Letourneau. “When my daughter was younger, my wife wanted to put her into dance class but it didn’t work out.

“My daughter didn’t have a place to go. There wasn’t a place for kids that have problems. The way it started was because my daughter got bumped out of dance class and because of the article I saw in USA Hockey magazine.”

As a result, Letourneau founded Rhode Island Special Hockey in 2007.

Prior to that, Letourneau was a coach with the Pawtucket Youth Hockey Association and was on the board as the player development director.

“The scheduler [at Lynch Arena in Pawtucket] realigned the blocks of ice time and squeezed us in,” Letourneau said. “I ran all the instructional programs for the Pawtucket Youth Hockey Association and we were really into player development.

“We already were at the rink and teaching kids how to skate. There really wasn’t any high lofty goal [for founding Rhode Island Special Hockey] other than to give the kids a chance to play and learn how to skate.”

Eventually, Pawtucket Youth Hockey merged with the Greater Providence Youth Hockey Association.

“I think this arrangement is a great model for integrating the special hockey division of USA Hockey into the traditional USA Hockey programs,” said Letourneau.

At the start, Letourneau arranged for a one-hour block of ice time during which the PYHA instructional program would run from 9 to 10 a.m., and then the special hockey program would take the ice from 10 to 11 a.m.

“The beauty of this program is all of the volunteers we have,” Letourneau said. “Some were high school players that needed community service. All of my coaches stayed for the next hour and worked with the special needs kids. The high school players also worked with the special needs kids.

“For the majority of the years we’ve run the program, we’ve had a one-to-one ratio, all of whom are volunteers. We almost can match one coach with one player.”

Letourneau noted that, going back to the first day of Rhode Island Special Hockey, he had three girls volunteer to help with the program and one remained for four years.

“When she went off to college she majored in special needs education,” said Letourneau of the impact Rhode Island Special Hockey had on that person.

In addition, three former special hockey participants are giving back to the program that meant so much in their lives.

“Three of our special hockey players come out, work with younger kids and help them learn how to skate,” said Letourneau. “Their skill level over the nine years has improved so much that they can skate quite well.

“They came in at age 10 and are now 18. They still have some special needs problems but they asked me, ‘Can I be a coach?’ I said, ‘Sure.’”  

Not that long ago, two special hockey coaches also were assistant coaches on a high school team and came out with what proved to be an interesting idea.

“We saw something in one of those three special hockey players,” Letourneau said. “We thought maybe we could convince him to go to high school practices and help the coaches. The coaches convinced him and he went.

“They got him a jersey and he played on the junior varsity team. He played and he dressed as a senior and sat on the bench. Here was a kid who started in the special hockey program and eventually had a chance to skate a few shifts on the varsity team.”

If that youngster had not participated in Rhode Island Special Hockey, skating even a few shifts on a high school varsity hockey team would have been impossible.

“It’s recognizing that the kids have an opportunity to do something that’s normal,” Letourneau said. “For parents it’s watching through the glass and seeing their kids playing hockey which is something they wouldn’t have thought could happen.

“Sometimes it borders on a miracle. I sit back and realize it’s amazing.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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