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Brick Stars Challenger Hockey Program Helps Spread the Love of Hockey and Increases Special Needs Awareness

by Brittany Burke / New Jersey Devils

Members of the Brick Stars Challenger Hockey program stand with members of the USA Warriors team at a charity game this past February. (Photo / Brick Stars Challenger Hockey Facebook Page)

Five years ago high school hockey coach, Alex DePalma took the advice of New Jersey Dare Devils founder Jon Schwartz and created his own special needs hockey program. The Brick Stars Challenger Hockey organization was formed to teach kids with special needs the game of hockey, but it has done more than that. It has changed lives.

“Jon and I go way back, and he had talked to me about it about four years before I got it started and [now] we’re the fastest growing in the country…,” DePalma said. “… I’ve been involved in hockey for 26 years coaching typical hockey, from 8-years old to high school, and the college level. This is the most rewarding thing I’ve done. It’s changed my life and countless others.”

Brick Stars players are visited by N.J. Devil in 2012. (Photo / Courtesy of

The Brick Stars Challenger organization began as an eight-week trial that came about because of some open ice time at the Ocean Ice Palace. DePalma started with eight kids during that initial run. Four seasons later, there are 63 skaters and no sign of slowing down. Each year the program grows in number of skaters, volunteers and opportunities for the team members.

It became clear after the first trial that it didn’t matter that DePalma didn’t know the first thing about coaching children with developmental challenges. He knew hockey and that was powerful enough to get things off the ground. Now it is his job to teach his volunteers how to relate and teach the kids instead.

“I learned a lot. The children in the programs taught me how to work with them. They taught me, so what I learned through them, how to work with them, I passed along to the other [volunteers]. I found that there is not a big difference between a kid with special needs and a typical kid,” said the program’s director.

Physically, the program helps increase the children’s mobility, coordination and focus outside of the rink. They are getting more stimulation through hockey then they ever had before and it isn’t going unnoticed. Whether it is from their doctors, families or teachers; hockey is helping improve in all facets of life.

“As the parents of these children tell me, they’re doing better in school, they have a purpose, they have a focus. The kids that are nonverbal, they say very few words in a day and are now going around and saying ‘hockey, hockey.’”

One-on-one coaching is available to players that need it. (Photo / Courtesy of Brick Stars Challenger Hockey Facebook Page)

There are two sections of instruction during the program’s weekly hour on the ice. At one end of the ice you have kids who can run drills on their own like a typical practice and on the other end are kids who require more one on one attention.

It is a goal of the program’s to graduate the one-on-one kids to the other end of the ice. Not only have DePalma and his volunteers managed to do that for a handful of children, but they’ve also graduated players on to typical hockey teams.

“We have one kid Owen, who started with the original eight [when] he was four, and now he’s skating with our squirt team 9-10 year-old travel team and he skates on the team,” said DePalma with pride in his voice. “I have four other kids who go on Monday night to our learn to skate, our typical hockey program … that’s really an accomplishment for the program and you get a sense of pride when you see that.”

The volunteers are not the only ones doing the teaching; the kids are teaching them as well. Bonds are created between the players and young coaches to the point where players ask for specific coaches and vice versa. The Brick Stars Challengers have helped bring a mindfulness and acceptance of special needs to the volunteer coaches.

“It started at as hockey for kids with special needs and became something totally different. It became a program that helped everybody … it was an awareness for myself and coaches that are pretty young kids that are volunteering … all the kids came down and started helping and it brought a huge awareness to them.”

Program Director and Founder, Alex DePalma cheers on one of his players during their charity game against the USA Warriors. The Brick Stars Challengers donated $1,000 to the USA Warriors at the game. (Photo / Courtesy of the Brick Stars Challenger Hockey Facebook Page)

With the growth of the team comes an increased alertness of what the program has to offer. Most recently DePalma was recognized as a Local Hockey Hero in conjunction with the New Jersey Devils and USA Hockey’s Hockey Weekend in America, but he doesn’t consider himself the hero. The heroes are the kids who he teaches week in and week out as well as their parents.

“They should have thought of a different thing to describe me, [maybe just] ‘guy who started a special needs program,’ not hockey hero … I look at these parents that walk in, and most of these parents that have these children, there’s not just one, there’s two or three kids that have special needs. And what these parents go through every day and these kids that get on the ice with their special needs, they’re out there trying to work, so we have it easy. How do you call it a hero when you look at these people who made my life better?”

Hero or not, there is no doubt that DePalma has made a difference for a small hockey community in New Jersey and he will continue to do so. Accommodations are already being made for next season due to the increased numbers in participation. For starters, instead of 60 minutes each week, the kids will be out there for 90 minutes.

Changes will continue to be made as the program grows, but one thing it will never be is competitive. The program is meant to have a fun, non-stressful environment. The players are not pressured to win or score goals, they are encouraged to improve to best they can be. There is an air of innocence surrounding the team and that’s something that DePalma will go to lengths to preserve for his players.

For more, head to NJ Youth Hockey Central.

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