PLYMOUTH, Mich. — It was a hockey game in every sense of the word on Sunday, Oct. 28 at USA Hockey Arena when USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program faced off against the Dubuque Fighting Saints.
There were just a few small differences. The video boards were dark, no music was playing and there was no horn after a goal. There were only the sounds of hockey.
It was obvious to the fans in attendance that they were at a very special event — it was Sensory Friendly Day. Designed for those sensitive to light and sound, such as those with autism spectrum disorder, it was also a chance for fans to take in a hockey game without the normal bells and whistles of modern game presentation.
The idea for the game was hatched by the NTDP sales and marketing staff along with Under-17 head coach Seth Appert, who had organized a similar event when he was the head coach at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
“It was a long-time season ticket holder and friend who had children on the spectrum, who when we were golfing one day mentioned about different ways to get the team involved in the community,” said Appert. “My mother was an elementary teacher and worked with children on the spectrum after she retired from teaching. We came up with the concept and said let’s try it. You never know how it’s going the first year.
“The response to it was strong and positive so we continued it [at RPI]. It grew and grew and became a big event, and we raised thousands of dollars for Capital District Autism Society. It became an annual event at RPI that they are still doing. Originally, we did it because we wanted to provide an experience to come in and enjoy a sporting event but it grew to be much more.”
Even for the USA players, Sensory Friendly Day had an impact. It took on extra special meaning for Under-18 defenseman Alex Vlasic, as he had a personal connection.
“Having a brother who has autism, it was pretty meaningful to me and to the people who came out to the game. I respect everything that went down,” he said. “It was definitely really cool and a lot different in terms of the atmosphere.
“Coach Wrobo [U18 head coach John Wroblewski] talked to us before the game about saying that the game might not be as energetic as it usually is but it’s for a good cause and that should drive you as much as anything else. I was surprised how much energy there was in the building, especially after we scored goals. I was very thankful for all the people who came out.”
In terms of the experience on the ice, the U18 players didn’t notice too much of a difference when it came to the game.
“The biggest difference for us was in warm ups where there was no music,” said Vlasic. “It was fun and what really got us going was the cause of the game. If there is a stoppage in play, it usually means there is a commercial timeout [for the broadcast] so that wasn’t too different for us.
“I definitely think it was a good idea for USA Hockey to put it on, and I thought the game went really well,” said U18 defenseman Henry Thrun. “There was a good crowd there. I didn’t notice the [lack of] music too bad. I really enjoyed the game.”
For the fans attending the game, it was something that they will always remember, especially watching 11 total goals scored, including eight by the U18s in the win. There were even quiet rooms available if anybody needed a break.
“It’s a really special event,” remarked one father, who brought his son to the game. “This is one of the first games we have noticed how the noise really impacted him. To have everything be so quiet, it has been a difference experience.
“It’s been fun. I told him before the game that it was going to be a quiet game today. A lot of the time, he spends time in the pro shop or behind the pro shop during the games. Today he’s having fun which is great and was able to enjoy the whole experience.”
For many families, this is an opportunity to participate in an athletic event that they might not normally attend otherwise. Rachelle Vartanian — who is president and founder of Living and Learning Enrichment Center in Northville, Michigan, one of the sponsors of the event — was appreciative for what the game meant to everyone involved.
“It’s wonderful to have this event,” said Vartanian. “I have had two families walk up to me and say they have never been at a hockey game until today. It’s really important for them and to their families as it is one more thing they can do together.”
And for Appert, this is a part of what he envisioned as he understands what this special day means to the families and their children who watched the game at USA Hockey Arena.
“One thing I realized after doing it at RPI that this is really for the parents of the children,” he commented. “Dads want to take kids to sporting events since that is what we know how to do mostly. Sometimes if they have children on the autism spectrum, these types of events can trigger negative responses. I got a lot of feedback from parents how much it meant to them to be able to take their children to these hockey games and have this experience as a family together.”
The final score of the game didn’t matter; rather, the experience at the end of the night was something that the fans in attendance will not forget.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.