The New Jersey Dare Devils is one of about 60 ice hockey teams in more than 30 cities for kids with special needs. The team was founded in 2002 by a mother who wanted to give her son, who had developmental disabilities, a chance to play hockey just like his older brother did. Today, the Dare Devils—based at the Richard J. Codey Arena in West Orange—attract 6 to 30-year-olds from across the state. About 90 percent of the approximately 50 players have autism. The team includes four girls.
At any level, hockey is an expensive activity. “Without the support of the Essex County Freeholders, our program would not exist,” says head coach Stephen Ritter. The program also relies on a substantial number of volunteers. “In addition to the 12 adult coaches who volunteer their time, there are 75 junior volunteer coaches who play on traditional hockey teams in middle and high schools and enable us to maintain the high staff/player ratio necessary in sports for kids with special needs,” says Ritter.
“We put the players in situations where they can succeed and develop self-confidence,” says Luke Robins, a junior coach from Chester. “I have been playing since I was 2 ½, so I like to work one-on-one with little kids.”
“I get as much from the players as they do from me,” adds Jason Schneiderman, a junior coach from Livingston. “I’m constantly impressed by their determination.”
The Dare Devils played 30 games against other special needs hockey teams in the New York area during the 2016-17 season. In April, 10 players traveled to Rochester for the annual friendship tournament.