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Coach Jon Schwartz Gives Hope to Special Needs Hockey Players

by Anthony Smith / New Jersey Devils

Jon Schwartz (left) has been teaching the game of hockey to athletes with special needs since 2002. (Photo/Jon Schwartz).

While the game of hockey in New Jersey has grown immensely over the past ten years, special hockey has often been overlooked. Special hockey is a program to get young athletes who have developmental disabilities involved in the game.

The New Jersey Dare Devils are a team affiliated with the New Jersey Youth Devils program. Since 2002, the Dare Devils have been providing those in New Jersey with developmental disabilities with an opportunity to become engaged in playing hockey.

Jon Schwartz, with the help of a parent of an autistic child, assisted in founding the Dare Devils program during the summer of 2002. Schwartz, who played hockey while growing up, became a coach right out of college, and has since been involved with several teams at many levels.

Wanting to find a way to have a bigger impact on more than just the 15 to 20 kids a typical program provides, he helped found the Dare Devils, who practice and play at Richard Codey Arena in West Orange, in addition to training at Next Level Training in Cedar Knolls, which provides training time to the team free of charge. The program that was comprised of six athletes at its inception now has over 50 participants. Schwartz, who grew up with a developmental disability, thinks hockey can provide kids with many necessary skills that they need to succeed in life.

“When I found hockey, it not only helped me with self-confidence and self-esteem, but provided stimuli,” Schwartz explains. “I can argue that a hockey rink is most chaotic spot in the world, people whizzing by at 15 to 20 mph, carrying big, giant sticks, sharp knives on the bottom of their feet, it’s complete chaos. That stimuli is very, very important for a lot of kids in our program.”

You can have a 15 year old autistic boy becoming friends with a 15 year old varsity player from West Orange. They interact on the rink, and five years later they are still friends.I cant think of another way that would happen without hockey. That's why they call it special hockey for sure. - Jon Schwartz

Coaching special needs athletes is very different than the game featuring athletes who do not require extra attention and care, but it is a challenge that Schwartz has embraced over the past ten years.

“The three main challenges are age, size, and skill level, and the fourth is the biggest one, the degree of disability, and there is a wide range of all of those four things,” he suggests. The program has players who range from four and five years old, to those who are in their mid and upper twenties. They can range in size from 50 pounds to over 200 pounds. Some players can barely skate, while others can hit the back of the net with ease.

“It’s just a huge spectrum of differences that you normally don’t have to grapple within a program comprised of neurotypical kids. And it could not be more fun or rewarding,” Schwartz says.

The program features 50 junior volunteers, who play ice hockey at the high school level, that serve as coaches under Schwartz. Those junior coaches are matched up with the participants in the program, and the results are what make the game so special.

Schwartz with one of his players. (Photo/Jon Schwartz).

“Kids come who can’t skate, are having trouble in school, are in special classes and schools, have trouble adapting to different teaching styles. All are barriers for them to compete in the world,” he states. “It’s so rewarding to see those same kids who came to us who couldn’t skate, lacking those core life skills, they leave or continue on with us, they get jobs, girlfriends, drivers licenses. Some go on to college, some of them get mainstream in school. Some have been able to participate in travel hockey.”

Schwartz has been involved in the game of hockey for many years, whether it be playing or coaching. But none of his prior experiences have compared to the satisfaction he gets from coaching the Dare Devils.

“I’ve never had anybody come up to me in an ice rink and give me a hug and a kiss,” he says. “[Families] come together to watch and participate in hockey … But it’s also a therapy session, a community event, a mini family reunion; all of these things are happening inside the hockey rink that we take for granted.”

Everything that Schwartz has seen during his time as director and head coach of the Dare Devils has made him a strong believer in what hockey can provide to a child.

“All those things make it extremely rewarding, to know that this program played a role, seeing desirable characteristics in these kids, accountability, dependability, self-reliance. That’s the power of hockey in New Jersey.”

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For more, head to NJ Youth Hockey Central.

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