by Dan Ventresca | AHL On The Beat Archive
Yuck it up, have a great time, have fun.
That was the big motivational speech used by coach Ray LeBlanc before his team, the East Coast Jumbos, skated at the Verizon Wireless Arena last week in a scrimmage against the Manchester Monarchs.
The Jumbos represent everything good about hockey. They compete in the American Special Hockey Association, a league that started 25 years ago to give kids of all age ranges and developmental disabilities the chance to play the greatest game on earth. LeBlanc’s team is comprised of skaters that range from six years old to 40 years old and the scope of skating and learning abilities is even greater. There’s only one criterion for joining the Jumbos – you have to have fun playing hockey.
LeBlanc and assistant coach Jim Perry, who work together as firefighters in Waltham, Mass., both have children on the autism spectrum. Those kids were spending time at local hockey rinks watching their siblings play, but were unable to participate in those leagues. So, seven years ago, LeBlanc decided to do something about it.
“That’s stupid. We need to start a team,” he said at the time. “So, we started the team."
"New kids that we had this year, one kid was six – never skated before – and another kid was forty, the gentleman that’s deaf,” LeBlanc said. “Both of them had never skated before and they started this year. They’re our highs and lows now. Six to forty we have on our team.”
The Jumbos came to watch the Monarchs practice on Feb. 19 and then took the ice at the end of the skate. Manchester players Michael Mersch, Nic Dowd, Kevin Gravel, Ryan Horvat, Kevin Raine, Nick Ebert, and goalie Patrik Bartosak all stayed on the ice to participate in drills with the Jumbos and even scrimmaged them at the end of the practice.
The Monarchs became the first professional team to skate with the Jumbos, who have an extensive history of playing with college programs in Massachusetts.
“Boston College was the first team that we did,” LeBlanc said. “I had done some carpentry work for one of the coaches at BC – one of the assistant coaches. I talked to him, told him about the program and he said, ‘Geez, that’s a great idea. Why don’t we start getting together?’”
In addition to BC, the Jumbos have skated regularly against Holy Cross and Bentley University. They also have weekly practices with the Waltham High School team.
“When those kids that are on those teams want to be there, it’s a great experience – like today,” LeBlanc said after his team played with the first-place team in the Atlantic Division. “Those guys that were out there, I don’t know if they were made to or not, but it didn’t seem that way. They wanted to be there.”
Kenny is one of the Jumbos star forwards and said he took a lot away from the experience of playing with the Monarchs.
"Whenever you go up against a group that good, you’re going to come away a little better no matter what,” Kenny said, “just from learning how to try to play against them, even if you don’t succeed at the time.”
Jenna and Dylan, both in their first year with the Jumbos, were impressed with the skill shown by the pro players, but still felt like they could compete.
“I think I can [keep up with them],” Dylan said. “It’s just that I haven’t broken in my skates, so I can’t go full speed yet.”
Jenna has been playing hockey for four years and noted, “I really liked the pace of it. It was fun.”
When LeBlanc started arranging for his team to skate with Division I colleges, he only considered the impact it would have on the Jumbos players. He never considered how much enjoyment the players on the other side would take away from it.
“Those guys, they always say the same thing, ‘We get more out of this than those kids get out of this.’ That’s the one thing that we never saw coming,” LeBlanc said, “how much it benefits a typical high school kid to be involved in this program. I’ve seen a lot of college essays that the kids have written about being involved with that program. We never saw that coming when we decided to put this team together. We thought it was strictly for our own kids. But, we’ve made an impact on a lot of kids.”
Playing against high level talent has instilled confidence in the Jumbos players – confidence that has even led to the team bragging about some of their accomplishments on the ice.
“When it started with Boston College, there weren’t as many programs around seven years ago as far as special needs hockey,” LeBlanc said. “So, we were going to [Washington] D.C. because that was where we could get a game and we used Boston College to get us ready for the tournament. Boston College won the National Championship that year. We were sitting at a sports bar and our kids were telling the bartender how they were the last team that beat Boston College. The bartender looks at me, he goes, ‘What? You guys beat that team?’ I go, ‘Yeah, 10-9.’ A lot of those kids view that as a fun time.”
The Jumbos will be back in D.C. next month for a tournament against other ASHA programs. LeBlanc has chartered a bus to take the team and their parents down there. With travel all around the East Coast and kids participating from across Massachusetts, the team requires an exceptional amount of help from volunteers.
“I’m lucky, too, because I have a lot of helpers and coaches that don’t even have kids involved,” LeBlanc said. “Like me, my son is in it. It’s for a reason. It’s the guy that doesn’t have a special needs kid and he’s there every Sunday morning at 6:30. They’re getting a T-shirt every year…It’s stupid how much they do for me.”
The Monarchs will host Autism Awareness Night on April 10 when they take on the Portland Pirates at 7 p.m. Thanks to presenting sponsor EnergyNorth Propane, local non-profits focused on Autism awareness will be on hand to distribute brochures and educate Manchester fans about autism and special aspects of the Monarchs game to make kids with autism more comfortable in a high sensory environment.