SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The 50th anniversary of the Special Olympics movement was feted in a special way Monday in the run-up to the 2019 Bridgestone Winter Classic at Notre Dame Stadium.
Special Olympians from Massachusetts and Illinois faced each other in a floor hockey game at the Joyce Center on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, less than 100 yards from the stadium that will host the outdoor game between the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday (1 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).
"I thought about where did the Special Olympics start? In Chicago, and I believe [Chicago Blackhawks player] Stan Mikita was at the [Special Olympics] in Chicago 50 years ago," said Bob Sweeney, the president of the Bruins Foundation and one of the organizers of the game on Monday. "So obviously with Boston and Chicago playing in the Winter Classic, I thought it would be a great idea to get a floor hockey game together and here we are today."
The athletes from the Massachusetts and Illinois teams played in a five-a-side game, while alumni from the Bruins and Blackhawks helped coach and interacted with the players. Jack O'Callahan, Eddie Olczyk, Andy Brickley and Bob Beers joined Sweeney in the contingent of former players involved in the game.
The Illinois team was comprised of athletes from Welles Park and Piotrowski Park and included Amelia Hernandez, who competed in the 1968 Special Olympics. The Massachusetts team was from the Belmont/Watertown S.P.O.R.T. program and included John Dunleavy, an employee of the Bruins for the past seven years. They will all attend the outdoor game on Tuesday.
"The athletes are besides themselves," said Mary Beth McMahon, president and CEO of Special Olympics Massachusetts and a part of the Special Olympics movement for the past 35 years. "They just can't wait to be a part of the whole Winter Classic experience."
After Olczyk, an "NHL on NBC" analyst, dropped the puck, the action began. The sport, at the Special Olympic level, most closely resembles ringette. It is played with sticks resembling broom handles and an oversized puck made of felt and with a hole in the middle to facilitate stickhandling.
The action was fast and furious, the players whooping and hollering each time a goal was scored and intently discussing strategy at the end of each three-minute shift.
The smiles from the players, as well as the organizers, as the game progressed, was a testament to its success.
"I think it's just great for the athletes to be spotlighted and I think what it says about the NHL is that they care about people," said Dave Breen, president and CEO of Illinois Special Olympics. "They are willing to support this and the athletes coming to the Winter Classic tomorrow, which I think is outstanding.
"It shows that big entities care. A lot of people think that the NHL or the Blackhawks or the Bruins are faceless organizations, but they are not; they are out in the community doing some really good things."