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Condors get by with a little H.E.L.P. from their friends

 

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The California Condors celebrate their tenth anniversary this month, and the fact that the hockey program for youth and adults with developmental disabilities has thrived for a full decade is a testament to the hard work and dedication of countless individuals.

But as the leadership of the program – started at the Valley Ice Center in Panorama City and now based at Iceoplex in Simi Valley – looks back at all it has achieved, it can’t help but recognize the critical role in the Condors’ success that was played by the Hockey Equipment Lending Program (H.E.L.P.), a non-profit organization created by Ronny Van Gompel in 1992.

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Van Gompel passed away in 2007, just as the fledgling Condors were struggling to develop their program, but through the support of H.E.L.P beginning in 2008, the Condors have grown and thrived, proudly carrying forth his legacy.

CA Condors - Ronny“I don’t think we’d be here without Ronny’s support,” said Rita Eagle, the Condors founder, manager and ‘Mother Hen,’ her preferred title. “It amazes me that we’ve been doing this 10 years.”

Van Gompel was a well-known figure in Los Angeles-area hockey circles, though his story began far from Hollywood. Born in Belgium in 1927, he couldn’t afford to play sports as a child. He served as an interpreter during World War II and discovered hockey while working with the Canadian forces, among them some former NHL players. Van Gompel convinced them to leave behind hockey equipment for children who couldn’t afford it to use at the sports center next to his home in Antwerp.

He later became the lead skater in Europe’s biggest show, and during a tour of the United States, decided to settle in Southern California. Van Gompel transitioned into a career with a title company, but hockey remained a hugely important part of his life. He worked a side job for more than 30 years as a timekeeper with the Los Angeles Kings, and began coaching youth hockey in the L.A. area in the 1950s – a time when the sport was largely foreign in the area.

Van Gompel often found ways to provide equipment for kids who couldn’t afford it and in 1992, officially started H.E.L.P. to give low-income kids a chance to play hockey. When he died in 2007, his last wish to his longtime friend and companion Mary Ann Maskery was to keep H.E.L.P. going.

Maskery was introduced to the Condors in 2008 by a former student and assistant of Van Gompel’s and saw in them the potential to carry forth his legacy. Through her efforts, H.E.L.P. arranged for a donation by the NHL Players Association of 18 sets of gear. Then, thanks to its official sponsorship by H.E.L.P., the Condors became a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, a key step toward helping them support themselves financially and major factor in the longevity they have enjoyed over the last decade.

“The Condors have taken Ronny’s program and kept it going,” Eagle said. “His goal was to give kids who couldn’t afford hockey a chance to play, and we feel we’re doing something very similar by making hockey accessible to kids with developmental disabilities who otherwise would have no place to play, while also providing the equipment.”

Now including approximately 30 players, the Condors are supported by a group of exceptionally dedicated volunteer coaches, the L.A. Kings Chariot program and ongoing fundraising, with the help of the Condors’ parents and friends, Eagle, Maskery and executive secretary Christine Fleeger. The Condors players are also assisted on the ice by kids from local youth hockey programs.

“I think Ronny would be very happy with how H.E.L.P. has been able to support the Condors,” said Maskery, who is now a member of the Condors staff. “I think he’d be impressed at what the Condors have become and proud to be a part of it.”

— Greg Ball