Special Needs, Special Teammates

The Brick Stars, lead by Coach Alex DePalma, are the fastest growing special-needs hockey team in the nation.

Coach Alex DePalma with members of the Brick Stars special-needs hockey team.
Coach Alex DePalma with members of the Brick Stars special-needs hockey team.
Photo by Jennifer Pottheiser

The team consisted at first of eight kids with varying disabilities. They came together for one hour every Sunday morning to practice skating.

Five years later, the Brick Stars Challenger Ice Hockey team is the fastest-growing special needs hockey team in the nation. Its 60 skaters—ages 5 to adult—participate in a 21-week program from September to March at Ocean Ice Palace in Brick. They travel for tournaments and play locally against other New Jersey members of the American Special Hockey Association, including the New Jersey Dare Devils and the Woodbridge Warriors. They also compete in an annual winter classic in Avon against the USA Warriors, a team of wounded veterans.

When he started the program, volunteer coach Alex DePalma had no idea what to expect. When the skaters—including youths with Down syndrome and various degrees of autism—would get upset, he considered pulling them off the ice. Their parents set him straight. These kids, they said, should be treated like any other young athletes.

Soon, many of the kids went from not being able to stand on the ice, to skating unassisted. Next came stickhandling and shooting. As the team jelled and scrimmages ensued, something unexpected happened.

“What I was getting back from the families was how the program improved [the skaters’] social lives,” says DePalma, a longtime coach at the Brick Hockey Club. “They were doing better in school, they were doing better with their dexterity, with their motor skills.”

Team manager Dina Crepaldi says the program has worked wonders for her 14-year-old son, Paulie, one of the original eight. Paulie was born with Down syndrome and, his mother says, would “shut down” when nervous. Now he is more outgoing, calmer under pressure and physically stronger.

Support for the team comes from parents, the Brick Hockey Club and volunteers, including  members of the Point Pleasant Boro High School hockey team.

The Stars will celebrate their season on April 24 with a fundraiser at the Crystal Point Yacht Club in Point Pleasant (info at their website, linked above).

“Everybody has benefited from this program,” says DePalma. “I have, the other coaches, the kids that volunteer—it’s taught them tolerance, and now they’ve become advocates. It’s just been really rewarding all around, working with these kids.”

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