Hockey program helps kids with disabilities thrive on ice

For many families, a child’s participation in a sport comes with ease.

The child is enrolled, shows up at games and happily participates.

But for families whose children have a developmental disorder, finding a sport a child can participate in can be challenging.

Enter Happy Hawks, an introduction to hockey program (for those who have never skated) for children ages 4 to 10 who have developmental disorders.

“It’s a fun, pressure-free environment,” said Tiffany Delmonico, of New Milford, whose 6-year-old son, Gavin, was one of four children from the region who participated in the inaugural program last year.

The program, part of the Northwestern Connecticut Youth Hockey program, meets at The Gunnery in Washington.

Registration has begun for the 2015-16 season.

Anna Vazquez will serve as head instructor.

Delmonico, vice president of the NWCYH, said she brought the idea of such a program to the board because there are no youth athletic programs for children with developmental disorders in the area.

Happy Hawks enables the children to fully participate in a sport, learn the skills and be successful to the best of their ability in an appropriate environment.

“If my kid decides to cry on the ice for an hour, I don’t feel pressure because the parents next to me understand,” Delmonico said.

Happy Hawks use the full ice — to provide a safe place for children who may have sensory issues — and youths are dressed in hockey gear.

Not every child may want to put on a helmet or gloves, but Happy Hawks works through those issues.

The program “enables my kids to learn at their own pace,” said Tracey Ruscil, whose twin sons, A.J. and Garrett, 5, participated last year.

The group is “small” and “there are enough helpers on the ice that each kid gets individual attention,” Ruscil said.

“We want everyone to feel important and successful,” Delmonico said.

Ruscil praised the coaches for their patience and “understanding (that) made learning to skate fun.”

“We are die-hard hockey fans,” said Ruscil, who played roller hockey, and whose husband, Drew, played deck hockey.

“We knew when we had kids that we would want them to try hockey,” Ruscil said. “The boys both ask to watch hockey before bed and they showed an interest in the game,” she said. “Plus their big sister plays, so I think that made it more interesting for them.”

Watching Gavin on the ice as he learned to skate from one side to the other without assistance and shoot a puck were among the highlights for Delmonico.

Gavin most enjoyed being out on the ice and being able to participate in an activity he has watched his other siblings, 11, 9 and 5, play.

Happy Hawks also provides an opportunity for siblings and others to get involved.

Ruscil said her daughter, Angie, was a helper and spent time on the ice encouraging the boys.

“She liked feeling like a coach…it made her feel important and having her out there really helped the boys stay focused,” Ruscil said.

“In five years, our kids could be out on the ice and look no different than other kids on the ice,” Delmonico said. “It just might take them longer.”

Dominick Alessandro, of Danbury, whose son Luke participated last year, said he hopes his child “will eventually play hockey, but for now, he is just learning to skate so it’s just about getting him comfortable with putting on the gear and being out on the ice.”

“This is the perfect environment because all of the families can relate to each other,” he said.

Program and equipment scholarships are available. For more information about Happy Hawks, email or visit