Hockey Players with Disabilities Show ‘They’re Not So Fragile’

February 17, 2017 7:00 AM

A U-M faculty member helped start a hockey team for individuals with cerebral palsy and other disabilities, supporting their athletic capacity and camaraderie on the ice.


All too often, Jacqueline Kaufman, Ph.D., sees children who are left out of vigorous childhood activities.

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The neuropsychologist works with children who experience weak muscles, tremors and stiffness from cerebral palsy or neurological issues from a stroke. Some of her patients have severe developmental delays. Others struggle with focus and behavior due to autism or ADHD.

Which is why parents are sometimes surprised when Kaufman asks their child: “Have you ever thought about playing hockey? I think you’d be great at it.”

“Children with disabilities are often treated like they are fragile,” says Kaufman, an associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. “Hockey is a full-contact sport. It’s competitive. It’s aggressive. And you can definitely get knocked down — hard.”

Six years ago, Kaufman set out to help fill a gap for children who were steered toward “safer activities but who clearly wanted more.” Thanks to a large startup grant from U-M Dance Marathon, a hockey team known as the Rockets was born.

Co-founded and coached by Kaufman and longtime Detroit-area hockey coach Kim Gearns, the group of roughly 30 players range from age 5 to 40 with a diverse range of cognitive, developmental and behavioral disabilities. About half the team includes U-M patients; other participants travel from as far as an hour away. The large coaching staff is completely comprised of volunteers.

"It’s good for parents to have the opportunity to step away and see their child in this environment and to see they’re not so fragile."
Jacqueline Kaufman, Ph.D.

A winning attitude

Every Sunday at the Veterans Ice Arena in Ann Arbor, the Rockets meet for practice to prepare for competitive games with similar teams in the state as well as out-of-state tournaments.

Families and coaches say the opportunity to play on this level brings physical, emotional and social benefits.

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Still, Coach Jack and Coach Kim are not known to cut anyone slack when it comes to putting in the necessary effort to play well.

“They have been treated special their whole life. Here, expectations are high. We expect them to work hard, regardless of their condition,” Kaufman says. “We don’t pamper them. We tell them that they are here to compete. That if they don’t play their best, they won’t win. You have to work hard. No excuses.”

For Rockets player Lila Rankin and her family, the philosophy is a welcome change.

Lila has a mild cognitive delay, ADHD, and a condition called ataxia, which causes a lack of muscle coordination that affects her balance.

“We didn’t know if she was going to walk or talk when she was born, and here she is skating,” says her mom, Genisse, of Monroe, Michigan. “My jaw just drops when I see what she has accomplished.

“This experience has given her so much confidence. Every child should have the chance to be a part of a team where they can make new friends and be a part of something. Their coaches have showed them that when they push their boundaries they are capable of more than what society might expect of them. Just for them to see they can pass the puck or score in a game is huge.”

Shared goals

Kaufman, who picked up recreational hockey as an adult, reassures hesitant families that even if it takes four years to help their child stand upright on the ice, that’s fine by her.

“We tell them that no matter their ability, anyone can play here,” she says. “Competitive sports is a place where you can learn how to have successes and failures. This team supports successes, partial successes and even failures.”

“Some do start out frustrated with a few tears, but by the end of the season they are out charging for the puck, out for blood.”

Kaufman says the experience not only benefits the kids but also their parents and coaches. Dozens of high school volunteers from area hockey teams also help with practice to make sure players who need it get one-on-one attention.   

“For some of our athletes, this is one of the few opportunities to demonstrate a competitive spirit in a physical sport. They haven’t ever engaged in a sport that’s on the edge of being safe and that can lead to getting hurt and getting smashed into,” Kaufman says. “Even on the bench, the kids support each other in a way they don’t typically have the chance to do every day because parents are often intervening for them.

“It’s good for parents to have the opportunity to step away and see their child in this environment and to see they’re not so fragile,” Kaufman adds. “Everyone seems to get something out of it. Coach Kim and I feel blessed to be a part of it. We are just a great family.

“It’s a gift every week.”