SUNRISE, Fla. - Just a few weeks ago, a group of 11 kids and young adults found out that they'd be a part of something bigger than they could've ever imagined.
The first team of its kind in South Florida aims to bring the world of hockey and those with special abilities together in an effort to show that anyone can play the sport. A collaboration between the Florida Panthers and the American Special Hockey Association (ASHA) hopes to fulfill that mission for a group of local kids and young adults, many of which never had the opportunity to skate on ice and play hockey before the creation of this special squad.
"The goal of ASHA is to have every kid that wants to play hockey who has some differing abilities that maybe wouldn't be able to play in the mainstream to be able to get out there and play," said Patty Nadolske, Vice President of Outreach for ASHA.
Sunday, Dec. 1., marked the first official practice for the Panthers Special Hockey Team at the BB&T Center. The players and close relatives were greeted by Panthers forward Frank Vatrano as they entered the building.
After a quick introduction, Vatrano led a tour of the Panthers locker room and gym to give the team a look into how he and the team prepare for big games throughout the season.
"The biggest thing for them I told them is to have a lot of fun," said Vatrano. "It's great to see how happy they were and I was happy to be a part of it."
Shortly after the tour and some group photos, Vatrano and volunteers from The Friendship Journey assisted the players in the fitting process for their team gear before getting out on the ice for their first official team practice.
"It's really cool," said volunteer Jesse Guttenberg. I'm excited to see them practice and I know a lot of them love hockey, "it's their favorite sport."
The American Special Hockey Association has roughly one-hundred programs spread throughout the country and the Panthers Special Hockey Team is the first in the area. The partnership between the Florida Panthers and ASHA came about via the Florida Panthers Community Champions grant application.
"They are community champions for us and they applied for a grant with the idea of building a special hockey team here in the market and what we really wanted to do was partner with organizations that are growing our game and really embracing that hockey is truly for everyone," said senior director of the Florida Panthers Foundation John Colombo.
"I think hockey gives back in a lot of ways, it's nice to expand out and get more people involved no matter what age you are. Whether you're a boy or girl anyone can play the game of hockey and it's nice to see that spreading through South Florida," said Vatrano.
Smiles and laughter filled the BB&T ice for the full length of the practice as the players got the opportunity to skate where the pros do, score goals and acquaint themselves as a team in front of their onlooking families. A moment many of them will never forget and memories to last a lifetime.
"They are going to talk about this forever. They'll walk out of here saying 'this was the best day of my life!' It was very cool," said Nadolske.