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Friday, April 8, 2011

“Ice Eagles” Soar to New Heights

“Ice Eagles” Soar to New Heights
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Southport, CT – An 11-year-old’s interest in learning to play ice hockey set in motion the creation of a school’s first ice hockey team. By itself, this is not such a unique development, but consider that these students are challenged with various learning disabilities. Soon, they will go head-to-head in competition against an experienced sister school.

The school with the fledgling team is the Eagle Hill School of Southport, which parent Katherine Sullivan described as a small school with students that are all bright and teachable but have some form of learning disability. “It’s a school where kids ‘learn to learn’ then transition back into public or private schools,” she said.

Last summer, when her son Jared voiced his desire to play hockey, Sullivan approached the Fairfield Ice Academy, with which she was already familiar, as they had donated skating passes to a school fundraising event she had helped coordinate.

“They asked if he’d be interested in a starter ice skating class, as a first step towards playing hockey,” Sullivan said. It turned out another 14 boys from the school were also interested in skating – not all for hockey necessarily – and a class was launched in September.

“There were four very talented young male instructors at the Academy that had played in college or prep school who were assigned to teach the group,” said Sullivan. “This would be a unique challenge for these teachers as the boys each have some form of learning challenge, from dyscalculia and dyslexia to language-base disabilities. And most of the boys had never played on an organized team sport because of their challenges, or had had bad experiences.”

When Sullivan first met with the instructors, she told them that they would have to slow things down, repeat things and have a lot of patience. “Tamara Guarino, the director of the ice rink, was particularly understanding and enthusiastic and the staff seemed to love kids,” she said. “There was also a great ratio of teachers to kids, about 3 to 1, and an attention level comparable to Eagle Hill’s environment, so I felt this was going to work out.”

One of the four instructors assigned to the class, Guy Savage, 27, spoke about how they got things started. “It was all strictly skating for the first eight weeks,” he said. “And just like any other kids, it was about getting the most out of them. Some needed to be coaxed, others just needed positive reinforcement. Attention spans varied, so keeping things fun and the kids involved was key, as well as making them feel like they were accomplishing something. We stressed that having the ability to skate would set them apart and boost their confidence. They thought that was cool.”

Savage said the boys’ level of interest in playing hockey varied at first until they really started skating and felt comfortable on the ice. What was very appealing though, he said, was going to the Academy every Friday. “It was like a mini field trip, and they got to hang out with their pack.”

Another of the four instructors, Brendan Gyarfas, 21, explained how the group made the transition from just skating to playing hockey. “In November, we started to introduce equipment and getting them familiar with it,” he said. “The first on-ice instruction was about stick handling and skating with the pack. With equipment on, it feels different skating, so there was getting used to that and balancing.”

Gyarfas said warm-up drills were introduced next, in which the boys skated around the perimeter to center ice, did crossovers with the puck and shots on goal from opposite corners. “They were very attentive on the ice and picked up on the techniques pretty quickly,” he said. “Their high level of enthusiasm helped. We tried to keep it as fun and interesting as we could.”

Power skating, stick handling, special skills and shooting all became the focus through the winter months at the Academy. “As far as teaching rules, we got into some basics – keeping sticks down, no hooking or slashing, etc. – enough to have a rudimentary understanding,” said Gyarfas. “More complex rules like ‘off sides’ regulations have been excluded at this point in their development.”

Savage said the boys themselves are largely responsible for their own success. “They cheer each other on, slap each other on the back, pick each other up,” he said. “It’s great to see. We know kids can be cruel and they’re not like that at all. They’re always positive and great with each other. It’s special.”

Pat Macoy, 24, who serves as both an instructor and coach, introduced the idea that they challenge another school to a game. “It came to a point where these kids were really starting to develop as hockey players,” he said. “I suggested they play Eagle Hill-Greenwich (the Southport school’s sister location) as both schools have students with learning difficulties and the same goals.”

He said the boys “earned the opportunity and have worked incredibly hard.” He added, “It’s been amazing to see their progress. And as much as they’ve grown, we instructors have grown as it takes a whole different discipline to teach them. The key thing here is that when they hit the ice, they forget their hardships and it all becomes about hockey and competition. It has become a passion for these guys.”

The Greenwich school, which already had two hockey teams, thought a game was a great idea, and one has been scheduled for April 8 at Stamford’s Twin Rinks. To prepare, Macoy said, “We really had to step up the knowledge about the game. It went from a lot of skating work to doing drills to teach them why the puck goes to a certain place defensively and offensively. We’ve also been having them scrimmage every week, which is great for us instructors as we get to see their progress in a competitive situation. That’s where we’ve noticed the biggest progress – passing with their heads up, talking about the game on the bench, really cooperating with each other. They want each other to succeed.”

The boys’ enthusiasm for the game was obvious. “I had done some skating before joining the Academy and really got into playing hockey,” said Ruairi Blevio, 11. “The instructors are really nice and helped along my teammates who couldn’t really skate at first. We’re all doing so well and we’re all friends.”

Blevio’s teammate, J.B. DiPreta, 11, said he was “very bad” at skating before the Academy, “but I’m very good now, and play defense. Hockey gets me stoked. I really love it.”

Jared Sullivan said it was “cool” that his mom had pulled everyone together to skate and play hockey and that it’s now his favorite sport. “I really didn’t know them or if we’d all get along, but we really hit it off and are great teammates.”

Perhaps the most die-hard team member is Gib Shea, 10. The lad broke his left wrist during a January practice and was sidelined for six weeks. “It was hard to sit out,” he said, “but I got right back to it. I think we’re definitely going to win our game because we have some great, determined players.”


The Fairfield Ice Academy: Intimate Rinks, Hands-on Instructors

Opened in Jan. 2010 in the Sportsplex at 85 Mill Plain Road, the Fairfield Ice Academy offers two rinks – one 36’ x 70, and a second 29’ x 72’ – built for small area games. “The intimate size is conducive to learning and levels the playing field,” said Director Tamara Guarino. “We have an average of about 10 to 12 kids on the ice at a time and roughly a 4-to-1 ratio of instructors to students.”

Guarino said the Academy is a great place to learn to skate, learn to play hockey or even just come to skate recreationally. She said they also offer the rink for birthday parties and that those groups have them exclusively to themselves. “That’s a big plus over a larger rink where the ice is shared. Scouting groups and schools often have outings with us, too,” she said.

Guarino added the facility provides skates, helmets and pucks but that other gear must be supplied by visitors or can be purchased from Fairfield Sports. The latter is right next door, and carries new and used skating equipment, offering a 20% discount.

“Those signed up for a program get a pass for free public skating for the duration of their program,” Guarino said. Normally, there’s a $5 fee to get on the ice, which is still very reasonable given that visitors can typically skate for about two hours. Separately, there is a $4 charge to rent skates and $5 fee for a helmet rental.

“We allow kids to progress at their own rate and move them up as they become more advanced,” she said. “Our concept is to keep kids engaged and share a love of skating and hockey that motivates them to excel,” Guarino said.

For more information about Fairfield Ice Academy, and details on its April 20-22 school break program, visit or call 203-254-8399.

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