By Tom Hoffarth
|Isabella "Bellie" Masenga meets with Kings mascot Bailey prior to the Kings vs. Dallas game on Jan. 12.
Hockey somehow speaks to Isabella Masenga. It does it in ways neither her parents, twin sister nor anyone else for that matter can fully understand.
During a Saturday afternoon at STAPLES Center, as the Kings scrambled back to force the Dallas Stars into overtime and then a shootout, hockey spoke loudly to the soon-to-be 10-year-old from Pasadena, who lives with a form of autism that prevents her from verbal communication.
Her eyes lit up, a smile was painted onto her face and she seemed to embrace every moment of the exchange from a second-level luxury suite, making a connection from deep inside.
“It’s probably the best day of her life,” said her mother, Suzanne.
“It’s the happiest I’ve ever seen her,” said her father, Tom. Until recently, no one in the family knew that she even was aware that the sport existed.
In all fairness, there was no way Bellie, as they call her, could tell them. She has never spoken a word.
More than a year ago, a speech therapist who had been working with her recommended trying out an assisted communication device – basically, a portable word processor that looks like a computer keyboard with a display window to show words as they are typed.
“The problem is, she would never use it,” said Suzanne of the AlphaSmart Neo laptop. “She kept pushing it away, or kicking it. It was just collecting dust.”
Finally, after a trip to Disneyland, there was a breakthrough. Bellie typed in one word – “Pooh” – as in, Winnie the Pooh.
Slowly, the machine became what Suzanne called “a life line” between the family and her daughter.
Just before Christmas, Suzanne faced the annual task of trying to figure out what gifts to get her daughters.
“Sophia (Bellie’s twin sister) could tell me she wanted an iPod or an American Girl doll,” said Suzanne. “But Bellie . . . this is a girl who’s never asked for anything. Was never able to.”
Handing Bellie the word processor, Suzanne approached her about what she’d like for Christmas.
“Hockey game,” Bellie typed.
Suzanne was puzzled. You want me to buy you a hockey game? Or do you want to go to a hockey game?
“Go,” Bellie typed.
Do you know what a hockey game is?
“Yes,” Bellie typed.
Suzanne was floored.
“It’s a full awareness of her environment that we never knew about,” Suzanne said. “It was so profound.”
Tom said there was no way he could have guessed his daughter’s interest in hockey.
“The two sports I watch at home are rugby and football, maybe a little baseball,” he said. “How’d she come up with hockey? And as it turned out, she was very specific about the Kings, not the Ducks.”
Suzanne asked her daughter: What is it about hockey you love so much?
“Hockey is a fun sport to watch,” Bellie typed.
So that’s what the family would do. With some apprehension.
“My worst fear was that we’d get four tickets, sit in the seats, she’d begin kicking and fidgeting and have a meltdown and we’d all go home,” said Suzanne. “That’s just what happens when you have a special-needs child. You end up taking two cars to events. One parent has to take the child home early, the other parent stays with the other child.”
To try to make things easier, Tom, a real estate lawyer, arranged through a business partner to get a suite so he could take what ended up being a group of 12, including two of Bellie’s caretakers, to the afternoon game about two weeks after Christmas.
Suzanne wasn’t sure how this would all play out.
Those inflicted with autism can react unpredictably to things around them. They can injure themselves by hitting their ears if they’re in distress over a situation they can’t control.
A couple days earlier, Bellie’s social interactive specialist, Linda, drove her to Long Beach to visit the aquarium. But when they got to the entrance, Bellie seized up, threw her arms and legs around, and refused to go in. Later that night, Suzanne asked her why she did that. “Too many people,” Bellie typed.
Suzanne prepared Bellie for the Kings’ game by taping the tickets to a mirror in her room, and creating a countdown calendar to mark the days off as the date arrived.
The night before, Suzanne asked Bellie: What would be the best thing to happen tomorrow?
“The Kings to win,” Bellie typed. What else?
“Take a puck home with a stick,” Bellie typed.
Suzanne took a deep breath.
“I’m not so sure about taking home a puck and stick,” she admitted. “That’s a little too dangerous.”
As members of the Kings’ staff heard about Bellie’s arrival, account executive Mike Briano arranged a VIP welcome for the Masenga group with staff members Patrick Koors and Jonathan Lowe. Bailey the mascot paid a visit to the suite – and Bellie knew who he was, typing in his name for her mom on the machine. The group also went downstairs after the first period and saw the Zamboni machines at work.
During a late second-period power play, Rob Blake took a long shot on Stars goalie Marty Turco, Anze Kopitar changed its direction, and the Kings took a 3-2 lead – leading to the usual array of red-flashing lights, train horns, blaring music and fans erupting. Bellie was right in concert with everything happening around her. She jumped up and down on the leather couch, high-fived her mom and banged the metal lid of the nearby trash can.
“She’s in her glory right now,” Suzanne said.
To her mother’s surprise, Bellie made it through the entire game. And she got her wish: The Kings won, in a shootout.
She high-fived everyone again as the cleanup crew worked around them, trying to get Staples Center ready for the crowd coming in a few hours to see the Clippers game.
Just before the game ended, Suzanne got the word processor out and asked Bellie what she was feeling at that moment.
“Good time mama at game,” Bellie typed.
Re-printed, with permission, from a Los Angeles Daily News article which originally was published on Jan. 13, 2008. Tom Hoffarth is a long-time columnist with that newspaper.