Hockey rinks across New Jersey will be part of a different kind of journey later this month, as kids and adults with disabilities will take part in a visit to 54 rinks in 54 hours, highlighting the successes and challenges of Disabled Hockey in the state and across America.
The event, known as EveryBODY Skates New Jersey (ESNJ), will begin at the NHL Powered by Reebok Store in New York City on Jan. 29 and conclude at the Prudential Center (a.k.a. "The Rock") during the New Jersey Devils home game on Jan. 31 at 5 p.m. Along the way, disabled athletes from four disciplines – sled, standing amputee, deaf/hard of hearing and special hockey – will meet local youth, college and adult hockey players, rink management and community leaders.
A long-time advocate and coach for disabled hockey, ESNJ Co-Founder Jon Schwartz of Park Ridge has seen the difference the sport can make for kids and adults."We are helping New Jersey's disabled discover and participate in hockey, the ultimate occupational therapy in our opinion," said Schwartz. "Hockey has proven to be an effective therapy, particularly for those with developmental disabilities, from disabled veterans to those on the autistic spectrum. Hockey plays a role in improving physical fitness, socialization, combating depression, and, importantly, promoting accountability and self-confidence."
The goal of ESNJ, in addition to allowing the participants to be part of a unique experience, is to raise awareness for the lack of accessibility of ice time at New Jersey's rinks. Schwartz's goal is to have the rinks each allocate – not donate – one hour of ice time per week to disabled hockey programs.
"We're not looking for financial support or sympathy," said Schwartz. Our programs just need a chance to grow, a small commitment from the rink on ice time, and a little support from the community."
An online petition started last month on everybodyskates.com to promote the program garnered over 1,000 signatures in the first week, including several National Hockey League players. The league, USA Hockey, the Devils and Philadelphia Flyers have all been supportive of the program, according to Schwartz. In addition to being honored by the Devils, the ESNJ athletes will attend and be recognized at the Philadelphia Flyers home game on Jan. 30 at 1 p.m.
"All these organizations have stepped up to the plate, contributing in many ways to support us," said Schwartz. "The NHL allowed us to use their New York City retail store to start the journey, the Devils and Flyers are honoring us, USA Hockey has been behind us all the way. It's great to see these groups come together and help our athletes."
Schwartz and his brother Andrew are the driving forces behind ESNJ. Jon coaches the West Orange-based NJ Dare Devils Special Hockey Team, which is comprised of more than 50 players with developmental disabilities, aged 5-adult. Andrew coaches the Westchester, N.Y.-based United Spinal Rangers Sled Hockey Team, which is a collection of players with physical disabilities who compete all over the East Coast.
"My brother and I have been big fans of the sport and played it for years," added Jon, a public relations executive who has worked for such New Jersey sports entities as the XFL Hitmen team and the Arena Football Red Dogs.
"We have both been involved with disabled hockey for more than eight years, and we knew we needed to do something big, something memorable and tangible to bring some awareness to the sport. And the timing of ESNJ during Hockey Weekend Across America couldn't be better."
Schwartz has seen first hand what these programs have done for New Jersey's disabled. "To hand a kid, as a teen, a jersey for the first time, and tell him or her that they are part of a team now, it's something special," he continued. "Many of our players come to us as a child or in adolescence, they go on to get not just hockey skills but jobs, drivers licenses, girlfriends. Some have even made their high school hockey teams. It's a joy that's unmatched."