Nine teams of special needs hockey players came from far and wide to participate in the sixth annual SoCal Special Hockey Festival as it held its opening ceremonies on Saturday at the Ice Station in Valencia.
This free two-day tournament is put on by Special Needs Athletes and Parents Sports, or SNAP, a Valencia-based nonprofit offering sports programs for athletes with special needs, and their team, the Valencia SNAP Flyers Special Hockey Club.
Teams from San Diego, Bakersfield, northern California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Canada high-fived the L.A. Kings Ice Crew and their mascot, Bailey, as they filed onto the ice during the athletes’ parade at the opening ceremony.
Players were joined by their coaches, with Santa Clarita Councilman Bill Miranda among them, who was the honorary captain of the host team, the Valencia SNAP Flyers.
“It’s a fantastic weekend-long tournament,” Miranda said. “This facility is second to none — the rink is full NHL size, we have an olympic rink and we have smaller rinks as well.”
Then came the national anthems, first for Canada, then for the United States, for which Sebastian Mancipe, a blind 23-year-old, played the anthem on a violin.
The culmination of the opening ceremony came when State Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, dropped the ceremonial “first puck” to open the festival.
“For these young people to go out there and compete like anybody else is fantastic,” Wilk said.
The festival is comprised of individuals with cognitive, physical and developmental disabilities, and is the only annual special hockey festival west of the Rockies, according to Dave Chase, executive director of SNAP Sports. The idea was to bring special hockey closer to teams on the West Coast and the event is designed to allow players with different types of disabilities to participate, Chase said.
“We start here in our program with a developmental ice skating program so we teach them how to ice skate first,” Chase said. “We use a variety of different devices to teach kids how to skate, and from that program kids develop into the hockey program.”
Games were played on Saturday, and continued on Sunday until the closing ceremonies of the festival in the evening where athletes will receive medals.
The first tournament was comprised of a total of 35 athletes. This year, a total of 125 athletes competed, each with their own set of circumstances.
“My son has autism, and I never thought this would be in his future,” said mother Tracy Davis. “He lights up when he’s on the ice — you would never guess that he’s got a disability. It’s an incredible feeling to see him play.”