When Tim Szymula was alive, he made a huge impact on youth hockey in Brevard County, Florida.
Even after his passing at age 45 following a courageous battle with pancreatic cancer, Szymula’s hockey presence has endured.
Szymula directed a portion of his life insurance to be used to start a youth hockey program. He died in May 2007, and by September, Tim’s Kids was up and running.
“I think it has evolved to something even bigger than he wanted,” said Susan Szymula, Tim’s wife, who is the past president of the organization. “He wanted to give kids who didn’t have the opportunity to play hockey for whatever reason — economics, it wasn’t available to them — and now it’s just grown to something that would mean even more.”
Tim’s Kids used to run an intro hockey program, along with special hockey and sled hockey. However, when ice time became extremely difficult to secure, Tim’s Kids had to drop its intro hockey.
“Ice time is a challenge, just like for any hockey team,” Szymula said.
The players get a chance to skate once a week at the Space Coast Iceplex in Rockledge.
Kids who play in the program are outfitted from head to toe with free equipment, and most players are brand new to the game when they join.
“Almost all the kids have never skated before,” said Rick Ninko, who is the lead coach for special hockey. “It’s a grassroots program, and from there, there’s always certain kids that excel more than others and there are always some that will never excel. As a coach, you have to accept that.”
With the more specialized programs, Tim’s Kids can focus on its two areas.
The special hockey program — which includes players with a wide spectrum of disabilities — is the only one of its kind in Central Florida. There are 17 youth players ranging from age 5 to late teens.
“It’s kind of a continuing program,” Szymula said. “It’s not like they age out to the next level or they move up. They don’t. They just stay in our program.”
Numbers for the special program have stayed the same over the years, but that’s what Szymula likes to see.
“We prefer it that way because we start with a one-on-one ratio [with coaches] for those players,” Szymula said. “When you’re on a half sheet of ice, there’s a limit to how many people you can put on the ice when you’re practically doing one-on-one.”
Ninko tries to get the special players as much one-on-one instruction as possible.
“A lot of that is going to be determined by the unknown,” Ninko said. “When you’re dealing with special kids, there is that unknown factor because a special kid can be fine for 15-20 minutes and then something happens and they can become very disruptive. If you do not have that scenario where you can deal with it, it can turn into a total mess.”
Since there aren’t any other special programs in the area, the kids aren’t able to play games against other programs.
“We practice every week, but we usually always try to incorporate a game,” Ninko said. “We play a small half-ice game where all the kids get a chance to score a goal.”
Ninko has a different goal for every player he works with. He might have a kid with Down syndrome who might only have one mission: try and skate from one side of the rink to the other. But a kid with autism spectrum disorder might legitimately be able to learn as much about hockey as possible.
“To say there’s a general goal for all of them other than to have fun and socialize and get exercise, obviously those are very generic terms,” Ninko said. “I have seen kids go out there that are non-communicative, meaning they won’t look at you and they won’t talk to you. Within a few weeks they’re looking at you, they’re smiling at you, and then within a few weeks they’re saying, ‘Hi, coach.’ All the goals have to be individualized to each child’s needs.”
Ninko is hoping in the future to develop more junior coaches for the special program.
“I find that the junior coaches, the ones that I can get to communicate, some of the kids tend to gravitate towards them a little bit more — bantam and midget-age coaches, 15 and 16 years old,” Ninko said.
The sled hockey program has been on the rise recently. Its numbers have spiked to 41 players: 23 youth and 18 adults, including two disabled veterans.
The sled program — which has two teams, one for adults and one for kids — practices on Sunday nights. It also travels to four to five tournaments each season and scrimmages local teams. The team plays under the name The Space Coast Blast Sled Hockey Team. To help pay travel expenses for tournaments, the sled programs hold a number of fundraisers per year, including a fishing tournament, fish fry and Oktoberfest event.
Everything is going well with Tim’s Kids and the goals of the program are being met every day.
“We think being a part of a team, being a part of a family is more important than if your team wins or loses,” Szymula said. “Just being a part of something is amazing. The parents have their own ad hoc parents group where they get to go in the stands and just talk and watch their kids. They’re not responsible for them at that time, someone else has them. We think it’s great for the families as well.”
It’s special for Szymula to see smiles on kids’ faces playing the game her late husband so thoroughly enjoyed.
“For a lot of these kids, this is the only opportunity for them to play a sport and to be part of a team,” Szymula said. “It’s nice to give them that experience.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.