WEST ORANGE, N.J. -- Jake Simon gave an honest assessment of his skating skill.
"I can skate backwards. I wouldn't say I'm great, but I'm graceful," Simon said after participating in the 11th annual NJ Dare Devils Frankenfest Festival, which is being held at Richard Codey Arena this weekend.
Frankenfest is the largest festival of the American Special Hockey Association (ASHA) season with 28 teams representing 23 special hockey clubs over eight states. Held for players with development disabilities, there are over 500 on-ice registrants, including 350 special hockey players, 100 volunteer coaches and 50 volunteers. The NJ Dare Devils was started in 2002 by parents seeking to find a physical outlet for children with autism.
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Simon, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2, always wanted an opportunity to prove he could skate and play hockey. The 22-year-old got that chance at the first Frankenfest 10 years ago. This weekend he is one of the veteran players in the event.
"To be with people I know, can talk to and play hockey is great," Simon said. "I really got more into skating in the Dare Devils program and playing does really help with exercise."
The New Jersey Devils Alumni Association has also played a big part in bringing exposure to the festival. Former Devils Bruce Driver and Grant Marshall are on hand to lend their support this weekend.
"We all come together for a good cause to grow the game in all aspects, and the Devils are proud to be a part of this," Marshall said. "We promote Hockey Is For Everyone. It's more than just a game, it's about life and coming together for the right reasons."
Said Driver, "The second we get to the rink, we see a lot of familiar faces. Seeing them on the ice and enjoying the moment; we know what that's about. We've been working with ASHA for a long time and been fortunate to bring some of the teams to Prudential Center to have them skate. It's a big highlight because they love going to Devils games, looking up and talking about all the [championship] banners."
ASHA executive director Jennifer O'Brien said everyone appreciates having the Devils alumni present at the event.
"These guys have Stanley Cup rings and they're heroes, but they treat everyone with so much dignity," O'Brien said. "They've built relationships with these kids and it's those relationships that really make them feel like it's important to everyone. Bruce and Grant have a great rapport with the kids and it becomes reality when the kids can shake their hands and have that relationship with them."
Simon's mother, Babette, said hockey has completely changed his life. Jake is an honors student at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey and has an internship at Pfizer in New York.
"He feels part of a team, feels that he's wanted," she said. "… he's gained a lot of new friends and people who can relate to each other."
Steve Ritter has been coaching the NJ Dare Devils program the past 18 years. His son Nicholas, who is 33, has autism.
"Through my involvement, I get the satisfaction of seeing my son, along with his teammates, do something they really have a passion for," Ritter said. "It brings tears to your eyes and even though it's a lot of work for our volunteers and coaches, it's worth it.
"Autistic people have a hard time socializing and this brings them together with something they like. In the locker room, they're making up lines, talking about who will pass to who and who's going in front of the net. These kids know more about hockey than me and I've been around hockey for 40 years."