West Ranch team giving back, coaching special needs players
There’s something amazing happening with the West Ranch Wildcats program, and it has nothing to do with the team’s performance on the ice in the LA Kings High School Hockey League.
The program, based in Stevenson Ranch, (north of Los Angeles) has signed on to have its players work with special needs hockey players from their area on a regular basis. The partnership is paying dividends for both parties.
West Ranch has two JV squads, and players from both have worked with the special needs program this year. Every two weeks, Wildcats players get together with players from the local SNAP (Special Needs Athletes and Peers) Hockey program, helping the players with drills, scrimmages and anything else that the players need to feel welcomed and like they’re achieving their goals on the ice.
Both the West Ranch program and the SNAP Hockey program (www.SNAPHockey.org) are based at Ice Station Valencia, so it makes for a natural fit between the two groups.
“It has been great to get the kids involved and help them with the social aspect of it so they can get a view for what it’s like out there in the world for kids that don’t have the same abilities as they do,” said Matt Keef, West Ranch’s JV Blue team head coach and a driving force behind the initiative.
SNAP Sports provides individuals with disabilities the opportunity to engage in a variety of sports-based activities. Their athletes often shatter the notion of commonly held limitations by accepting the challenge of more complex competitive sports. Players gain confidence and poise while becoming better equipped to manage their individual disabilities. Athletes who participate regularly will routinely develop the essential physical and social skills needed to improve their everyday lives.
The program, established in 2012, involves about 100 athletes participating in ice hockey, developmental ice skating, distance running, flag football and cheerleading. It was formed by a group of six special needs athletes who had been playing floor hockey and were inspired by the Kings’ 2012 Stanley Cup run to take their games to the next level. Modeled in part after the California Condors program, SNAP Sports took off and grew from their initial roster of six hockey players to approximately 25.
“Our special needs training is actually peer based,” rather than coach-to-player based,” said Dave Chase, the executive director of SNAP Sports. “We thought that the West Ranch kids were a great fit to work with our program.
“You gain a lot of experience when you have an adult coach working with special needs athletes, but there’s also something to be said for the raw meeting of two people on the ice who are just out there to play hockey. The equalization that comes with that is very powerful because it’s no longer a hierarchy system – it’s a peer-based system. The kids seem to take to that keenly, and it really helps them with the social component because they’re working with people their age.”
Keef said that working with the SNAP Hockey players has benefited his players more than even he expected, as they’re practicing compassion while experiencing the immense value of community service. It’s not hard to see how much their work positively impacts the players they are coaching.
“Most of our kids haven’t had a lot of interaction with special needs individuals before but fortunately, they are passionate about their sport and want to help their community as much as possible, so they’ve been doing a great job,” Keef said. “One of the big things we try to do is to introduce ourselves to a new person each time we’re out on the ice, to help break down the barriers. It has definitely opened our players’ eyes.”
— Greg Ball
(Dec. 19, 2018)