What happens when a professional hockey player hangs up his skates for the final time but still wants to be involved in the game? There is coaching or scouting, perhaps even a front-office position.
Then there is the route Peter Ciavaglia took.
A native of Albany, New York, and graduate of Harvard University, Ciavaglia played briefly in the NHL for the Buffalo Sabres but spent much of his career with the International Hockey League's Detroit Vipers. In his six seasons with the Vipers, Ciavaglia became fond of the team's charitable contributions.
"All the attributes you can get from a team sport like hockey, I wanted to be able to stress to the people I was working with. The confidence I got in life from hockey, the camaraderie, the teamwork, you can go on and on with the skills you develop in hockey." -- Peter Ciavaglia
"Just being involved in the community, I knew it was something I wanted to continue when I was done," Ciavaglia told NHL.com. "And I wanted to incorporate, if I could, hockey. It was a big part of my life."
So in the mid-2000s, Ciavaglia discovered there was a demand for exactly the mix of hockey and charitable work he was looking for, but with a twist: special hockey. An initiative designed to give participants with developmental disabilities the chance to learn and grow through hockey, special hockey was and is swelling with popularity both within the U.S. and internationally.
Ciavaglia went to Macomb-Oakland Regional Center (MORC), a nonprofit which supports over 4,000 developmentally disabled people in the greater Detroit area, and pitched his idea. The organization bit, and in 2007-08, the MORC Stars were born.
"They came out, but we started very small," Ciavaglia said, indicating there were five regular players on that initial roster. "Each year it's grown, and now it's a situation where we have, I think, 93 kids and multiple full-time volunteers."
Ciavaglia said that while he lacked any real experience working with special needs individuals, he knew there were certain universal ideals hockey could impart on a person no matter their mental or physical ability.
"Yes, teaching hockey is an aspect of what we do, but what I really wanted to do was to give back the things I thought were most important from the game," Ciavaglia said. "All the attributes you can get from a team sport like hockey, I wanted to be able to stress to the people I was working with. The confidence I got in life from hockey, the camaraderie, the teamwork, you can go on and on with the skills you develop in hockey."
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Ciavaglia sees those attributes develop in his Stars, but he stressed that each individual represents a singular challenge, with a distinct personality and disability. The challenges are unique, as are the success stories, but Ciavaglia groups the most satisfying stories into two groups: on the ice and at home.
"You hear stories that they're starting to do better in school, their focus is up, their confidence is up. You hear the pride in the progress that's made off the ice," Ciavaglia said, referring to the stories parents avail him of at the weekly practices. "The reality of the situation is that's what you're trying to achieve, to develop those life skills.
"And also, most of our kids have never skated, they're coming from ground zero. So you can see the pride in the players when they come out and they go from falling down quite a bit, to getting a stick in their hand and being able to play hockey, to starting to understand the game and getting excited about the game."
Ciavaglia said his experience with special hockey has been about maximizing every advantage possible, from trained volunteers and coaches to raising money to interactions with the wider community. It's a mentality that, so far, has allowed Ciavaglia and MORC to put a stick in the hand of anyone who wants to try hockey.
For more information on special hockey or to find a special hockey program in your area, please visit the American Special Hockey Association (ASHA) or Special Hockey International (SHI) websites.