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Positivity, Fearlessness Fuel Jack-of-All-Trades Season Ticket Holder

by Caleigh Burchfield / Pittsburgh Penguins

With April being National Autism Acceptance Month, we are sharing the story of Penguins season ticket holder TJ Klisavage, who has Asperger's syndrome - which is a developmental disorder affecting ability to effectively socialize and communicate. Instead of letting it hold him back, he has used it to propel his life as a hockey player and, most recently, comedian.

Klisavage, who has been a season ticket holder since the summer of 2016, grew up a Penguins fan listening to his father saying, "He shoots, he scores!" around the house.

"I remember being hooked instantly when I heard Mike Lange saying, 'He shoots, he scores!' for the first time," Klisavage said. "My dad would say that, and I didn't know that Mike Lange came up with that. So being only 4 or 5 years old and hearing that, the first thing that came to my mind is, 'Oh my gosh, my dad taught Mike to say that!'"

And like many hockey fans, watching Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr night after night ultimately inspired Klisavage himself to want to try the sport. However, his mother was hesitant to let him play. Because of his Asperger's syndrome, she did not want him to risk a head injury that might impact his brain.

"At the time, autism was kind of labeled as one thing, there really wasn't much research into it," Klisavage said. "She knew how physical hockey could be, and when I said, 'I want to try to play hockey,' she made every attempt to try to discourage it. I think it was because she was worried about me taking a hit to the head. Being autistic, she thought it might have made it worse. I understand that now, but I didn't realize that at the time."

So instead of joining a team, Klisavage stuck to playing in his driveway and basement. His stepfather painted the floor in their basement to mimic a hockey rink, with Mellon Arena painted around the center.

"Like Crosby, we had a dryer to look out for," Klisavage said with a laugh. "It was not as dented as Sid's, but, trust me, it took some abuse."

Over the years, he continued to watch the Penguins religiously and pick up the stick for fun, but never joined a team until his three nephews - Joe, Jacob and Josh - inspired him to. While Klisavage is not technically related to the trio, he is very close with the family and has such a bond with the boys that they dubbed him Uncle TJ.

All three of them play hockey for the North Pittsburgh Wildcats. One weekend, the Penguins and the Wildcats were both playing in Columbus. Naturally, Klisavage went.

"They had no idea I was coming to Columbus," Klisavage said. "I told their dad I wanted to surprise them. I got there about a half hour before they got there, so I see them walk in. I go over to see Jacob, and I asked where Josh was. He points to him and I walk over. Josh's head pops up, he sees me, he squeals my name and he jumped out of whatever chair he was on and ran down the steps. Next thing I know, he's leaping into my arms. I almost lost it."

And just like Lemieux and Jagr inspired him years earlier, watching Joe, Jacob and Josh - wearing a No. 62 'UNCLE TJ' jersey - made him want to attempt to play again. So, Klisavage reached out to a friend playing on a team in New Kensington, bought some equipment, and became the team's newest winger.

"That's when they were really improving the equipment and everything, especially when it came to head injuries," he said. "And so I thought to myself, maybe this is a good time to give this a try."

Unfortunately, as Klisavage noted, it's not always as easy as Crosby makes it look.

"I had my first game, and the way I performed was basically a chicken with its head cut off," Klisavage said with a chuckle. "I had no idea what I was doing, because at the time, I did not know what a winger was supposed to do. I was all over the ice, and my teammates were asking, 'What side are you playing?' I was thinking, 'What are you talking about?' And that's when I started to learn the lingo. The last couple of years have kind of been a learning process in terms of how to play."

Now nearing his fifth year playing on a team, Klisavage has learned more than just the lingo.

"Playing with Asperger's syndrome has its disadvantages and downfalls," Klisavage said. "For example, in the beginning, I was afraid to get hit, even though I had all this equipment on me. I was afraid to fall down on my skates, I was afraid to even go near the puck. When someone gave me the puck, I would dish it off immediately, without even skating. I was afraid of somebody even touching me, but over the years I learned that you have all these pads on, and you're going to be okay."

And luckily, he's found a league that matches his level of competitiveness.

"If anybody with a disability wants to try hockey or any sport, try to find a league that has folks who are willing to help you out, even if they're on the other team," he said. "I think that it not only builds confidence, but it also builds acceptance."

His other words of advice: don't give up.

"Because of my autism, I went through some special schooling and there was a motto that went, 'nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something,'" Klisavage said. "I think the way that autism has been explored in the past couple years, everybody has a unique situation. If I can make a recommendation to anybody who has autism, it's that if you really want to do it, go for it. Give it a try, and just see where it takes you."

And Klisavage has taken his own advice - most recently, beyond the ice and to the stage as stand-up comedian.

"Not only has my autism helped me in terms of hockey, but it's also given me great stand-up material," Klisavage said. "I'm known as The Autistic Comic, and I actually do material about being autistic, stuttering and everything like that. I've gotten so much praise from people because autism is one of those subjects that can be touchy depending on how you talk about it, but everybody who has seen me perform is just in awe of somebody who's able to take a situation and just turn it into something positive."

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