Jean Laxton is hoping the West Michigan Special Hockey Association (WMSHA) continues to grow.
It’s on the right track, and a $2,000 grant from The USA Hockey Foundation will go a long way toward the association reaching its goals.
Laxton founded the WMSHA two years ago in Grand Rapids, Mich. There was some open ice time at the Patterson Ice Arena, so she had an idea to try to get children and young adults with developmental disabilities involved in hockey.
“This was something that was always near and dear to my heart,” said Laxton, who is the general manager of the Grand Rapids Amateur Hockey Association (GRAHA), the parent organization for the WMSHA. “My degree prior to getting into hockey as a volunteer over 20 years ago was in psychology and human services, so I’ve always had a soft spot for kids with disabilities, and I worked in a group home for disabled adults for three years.”
Laxton has really gotten the program going with the assistance of Charlie Keider, who recently moved to Grand Rapids and started helping in May. Keider learned a great deal about running a special needs hockey organization from his time working with the Detroit MORC Stars, a program that is very similar to WMSHA.
The mission of WMSHA is to offer an amateur level hockey program for children and young adults with Down syndrome, autism or any other developmental disability. WMSHA is open to any player over the age of 5, male or female, who is physically able to play but would be unable to participate in any other organized program due to a developmental disability.
The WMSHA is in its early stages of existence and is drafting its own bylaws to become a stand-alone organization from GRAHA. Since the WMSHA is working on getting approved as a non-profit, the organizers don’t want the athletes to be responsible for paying for ice time at the Patterson Ice Arena or for equipment. Donations and grants have become a critical means to keep the organization going in the right direction. Along with the $2,000 from The USA Hockey Foundation, the WMSHA received a OneGoal grant from the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association.
“Equipment and ice time always seems to add up,” Keider said. “To be able to offer that to parents as a freebie basically that we’re giving you ice time, we’re giving you equipment is big. … $2,000 in some people’s minds isn’t a lot, but it goes a long way for us.”
With The USA Hockey Foundation grant money, the WMSHA will be able to pay the applications fees involved with getting non-profit status and buy equipment, including helmets, cones and possibly jerseys. Laxton has purchased a number of helmets to keep the players safe and protected on the ice. Also, the organization bought some walkers as skate aids because a lot of players aren’t able to skate freely.
The WMSHA has a good relationship with the Patterson Ice Arena, so the players in the WMSHA are able to use the rink’s skates for free during practice.
“It’s very important,” Laxton said about the grant money. “Every little bit helps. We’re appreciative of anything that we can get to assist to be able to continue to be able to put this on for the kids.”
Ready for the Season
The new season for the WMSHA gets under way Sept. 24, and the athletes will get an hour of ice time once per week.
In the past, the age of players has ranged from 4 to 27. Laxton is expecting a similar pattern this season. She is hoping around a dozen players will participate in the program.
“We have a wide range of abilities, some that can skate and some that are really struggling to even get around on the walker, but we have to start somewhere,” Laxton said. “We’re happy to take anybody that walks in.”
Keider will be running the on-ice instruction and has other volunteer coaches helping out. However, he’d also like player assistants who can help each skater understand what the coaches are teaching.
If practices go well, Keider would like to play some games and eventually have the team compete in tournaments.
“The goal is to make it a full team and then possibly its own league where we have a West Michigan Special Hockey League, and it’s not just one team, it’s multiple leagues for the west Michigan region,” Keider said. “I think that’s a reasonable goal.”
The team is nicknamed the Patriots, and the players are excited to get on the ice. Keider spoke with a player in the offseason who is 18 years old and aged out of the traditional youth organizations. However, he’ll get a shot to play with the Patriots.
“His first comment to me was, ‘Maybe we can get practice jerseys with our logo on it,’” Keider said. “He’s really excited to have his own team.”
That wouldn’t be possible without grants.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
With one final blare of the goal horn, it was over. Wiping away more than three decades of IIHF World Championship frustration, Team USA had toppled Russia.
This wasn’t the universally known Miracle on Ice of 1980, but it was a watershed moment, sending a powerful message about USA Hockey on the international stage. What the 1996 United States Men’s National Team accomplished in a 4-3 overtime defeat of Russia in Vienna, Austria, was a step toward more consistent success at the World Championship.
“It was pretty dramatic,” said 1996 team member Tom Chorske. “It was a shorthanded goal by Brian Rolston, so that was pretty incredible. The Russian team was always good, and that was a time just after the heyday of the Red Army teams…so it was a big deal to beat the Russians.”
The win cemented a bronze medal for Team USA – its first medal-finish in the tournament since 1962. In total, the boys in red, white and blue have taken home 10 medals at the World Championship, with three of those being claimed since the 1996 team won bronze.
“After we got that medal, I think guys started to realize there was something to play for,” said Joe Sacco, a forward on the 1996 team and assistant coach of the 2014 U.S. Men’s National Team that competed in Minsk, Belarus. “I think the players don’t understand how important (the World Championship) is to other countries. It’s almost like their Stanley Cup over there. It’s a great tournament and it was a lot of fun. To bring home a medal in the process, the first in 34 years, you leave a mark when do something like that.”
According to Sacco, it wasn’t a star-studded roster; rather it was just a bunch of working-class guys extending their hockey seasons, but that’s what made it work.
“Anytime you are able to get a team to come together quickly as a group, it’s going to help your chances,” said Sacco, who fed Rolston for the eventual game-winner. “It was a lot of blue collared-type attitudes, a lot of good guys and we were all on the same page pretty quickly.”
With Ron Wilson at the helm, Team USA worked its way to the bronze-medal game with preliminary wins over Austria, Germany and Slovakia. A quarterfinal win over Sweden and semifinal loss to the eventual gold medal-winning Czech Republic set up the third-place contest.
Rolston’s goal at 4:48 of overtime sealed it for the Americans. The medal win was 34 years in the making, and it put USA Hockey back on track. That impact wasn’t lost on the players.
“To be on this team was really something,” said Chorske. “It proved that USA Hockey was ascending to be one of the top teams in the world. It was a step forward in our success internationally for a long time to come.”
USA Hockey has been a stepping-stone in the careers of Chorske and Sacco, too.
“I’ve been very fortunate. USA Hockey has been a part of my life since I was 16,” said Sacco, now an assistant coach for the Buffalo Sabres. “USA Hockey has been a part of my development as a player and as a coach. It’s been a really good relationship for both sides.”
Chorske is currently working in the business sector but also serves as a hockey broadcast analyst for Fox Sports North in Minnesota. He is forever grateful for the opportunity to represent his home country.
“USA Hockey is a national community that I’m proud to be a part of,” he said. “All of the friendships I’ve made over the years, with those teams, and getting to play alongside other American star hockey players was a lot of fun. Certainly medaling with two of those national teams (he was also a member of the 1986 U.S. National Junior Team that earned the first-ever IIHF World Junior Championship medal for Team USA), it’s a big part of what made up my hockey career.
“Behind winning the Stanley Cup, one of the most successful moments of my career was with that USA Hockey team at the World Championship.”
Trent Klatt had never considered being a coach.
When a group of Klatt’s friends approached him about the idea, he was hesitant, but eventually came around. He even got the chance to coach his own kids in youth hockey.
The boys varsity head-coaching job at Grand Rapids (Minn.) High School opened up and that same group of people approached him again. This time, Klatt wasted no time taking his place behind the bench for this traditional northern Minnesota hockey powerhouse.
During his first year, Klatt coached his team to a third-place finish at the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament. This year, in just his second year at the helm, he helped guide the Thunderhawks to the state championship — Grand Rapids’ fourth overall and first since 1980.
“The guys I have are passionate about the game of hockey and it’s in their blood,” Klatt said. “It’s a neat experience to be around a group of payers that love the game as much as they do. This community here in Grand Rapids has been phenomenal. They’ve been huge supporters of this hockey team for many, many years.”
For Klatt, who played 14 seasons in the NHL and later served as the head amateur scout for the New York Islanders, there’s just something about a community standing behind a team.
It’s even more special when it’s an entire country.
The Minnesota native competed for Team USA in the 1991 IIHF World Junior Championship and at the 1999 IIHF Men’s World Championship where he developed friendships with players from other parts of the United States while representing his country.
“It’s special because you put jerseys on all the time – you’re on this team and that team – but then, all of a sudden it says ‘USA’ on the front,” Klatt said. “It puts you in a different place because now you’re not talking Minnesota or Grand Rapids, you’re talking the world. It’s a pretty awesome feeling.”
Two of Klatt’s players at Grand Rapids, Gavin Hain and Blake McLaughlin, had that same special chance to compete in red, white and blue. Both were selected to the U.S. Under-17 Select Team last year, and they embarked with a simple piece of advice from their high school coach.
“I said, ‘hey, go have fun,’” Klatt said. “’Just enjoy the moment, and just play the game of hockey. Just because you have a different jersey on doesn’t mean you have to play a different way.’”
Klatt wasn’t always around in his community as much as he would have liked. He joined the Islanders organization in 2010, but the long hours and time away from home eventually prompted him to step down as head amateur scout in 2015. It was at that same time the head coaching job at Grand Rapids opened up.
Still, finding a balance between family and hockey can be a challenge. But Klatt has found a rhythm that allows him to be fully present wherever he is.
“When I’m home, I’m home,” Klatt said. “I leave all my hockey stuff at the office at the rink. I just try not to intermingle all of them. The biggest thing for me is leaving all the hockey stuff at the rink and not bringing it home with me.”
At the rink, Klatt shares his experiences with the kids on his team – translating them into lessons. Whether it’s experiences in youth hockey, with USA Hockey, the NHL or anywhere in between, Klatt’s grateful for the chance to give back.
“I’ve been so blessed, so fortunate and so lucky to have made a career out of the game of hockey,” Klatt said. “I’m not saying anybody else has to think this way, but for me, I find it pretty selfish to not give back ... Kids these days are so eager to sit and listen.”
Klatt uses that opportunity to emphasize the importance of playing the game the right way. He said he expects his players to show respect to coaches, players and officials, while controlling what they can control.
“I tell the guys this all the time,” Klatt said. “There’s a number of things I could go into to constitute the wrong way and the right way, but I expect them to play the right way.”
Most importantly, Klatt hopes his players will give everything they can give — knowing they made the right decisions and treated everyone with respect.
At the end of the day, Klatt hopes they realize what’s most important.
“If they give everything they have every single day, whether it’s a practice or a game, they can look at themselves in the mirror at night when they brush their teeth, and they can say, ‘you know what, I respected everybody, everybody’s dignity, I gave everything I had, and today, this is how good I was,’” Klatt said. “If they can just take each day and give it every thing they have, they’re going to get to wherever they want to do in life, with anything, and not necessarily with (only) hockey. With any other career, it’s the same thing.”