We like to talk about growing the sport of ice hockey here in Middle Tennessee, and while expanding the size of youth & adult leagues is a worthy cause, we should also consider how the game can be brought to groups of people you may not think of right away as hockey players.
Today's Indianapolis Star puts a spotlight on the Indy Twisters, a program specifically designed for kids diagnosed with various forms of autism:
As the number of kids on the autism spectrum continues to rise in America - 1 in 88, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - the demand for services also is rising. That includes youth sports.
For years, Special Olympics has provided a home for the major sports. Smaller, community-based groups such as the Carmel Dads Club have offered a special sports branch.
But in Central Indiana, no group had offered special-needs hockey, until the Indy Twisters and the Indy Special Hockey Association came along.
Best of all, outside of a modest registration fee, the program is free. 10 sets of equipment were donated by the NHLPA's Goals & Dreams Fund, allowing kids whose families are already burdened with the costs of therapy & treatment the opportunity to get on the ice and learn the sport.
But it's not just fun & games - there are tangible benefits by including such kids in programs:
Experts say the benefits of exercise through organized sports are numerous for kids on the spectrum: Greater self-reliance, heightened concentration and a willingness to adapt to new experiences with a sense of accomplishment and pride.
"One of the most effective treatments for autistic people is exercise," Dr. Stephen Edleson, director of the Autism Research Institute, said in an online article. "Studies show vigorous or strenuous exercise is associated with decreases in stereotypical behaviors, hyperactivity, aggression, self-injury, and destructiveness."
In addition to the social aspects of organized sports play, there is evidence that such activity can help kids perform better in the classroom.
So while we as NHL fans fret over whether our team will make the playoffs, or win the Stanley Cup, it's worth recalling that victory can come from merely getting out there and being part of a team.
For more on programs like the Indy Twisters around the country, head over to the American Special Hockey Association's website.
A tip of the hat goes to my mother-in-law up in Indiana for forwarding me the IndyStar article.