Friday, March 30, 2012

Shining STARs: Skating and Sled Hockey in Houston

“You’re a shining star, no matter who you are.”
-Earth, Wind & Fire

Funk music may not have spurred STARskaters founder Jim O’Neill to form his non-profit organization, which assists disadvantaged children and adults, but Earth, Wind & Fire’s hit song could be the unofficial theme song for those who volunteer time and money and who participate in Skating for Therapy And Recreation.

O’Neill’s inspiration came not from Motown but rather from the City of Light, via an HBO show hosted by Bob Costas. The episode featuring Buffalo’s Skating Athletes Bold At Heart (SABAH) triggered the one-time Wisconsin and Texas transplant to take action.

“I’ve been skating all my life,” O’Neil says, “reffed over 2,500 hockey games. Thousands of contacts. When I watched that piece, I though we really need something like this in Houston.”

So in 2006, O’Neill hatched a plan to form his organization, and two years later, the first STARskaters event launched. Now, as the association’s Web site says, “The program is open to anyone five years of age or older who would normally be unable to enjoy an on-ice skating experience due to their disability.”

These shining stars—some of them blind, autistic, or paralyzed—learn safety first. They advance from tying their skates and selecting proper head gear to participating in a variety of programs and activities, such as figure skating and wheelchair hockey.

Four years after the first event, sled hockey (known as sledge hockey outside the United States) is now aligned with the organization’s mission.

O’Neill attributes the genesis and growth of the sled hockey program to one of those thousands of contacts he mentioned. “A buddy of mine is a regional guy with USA Hockey, and he asked about implementing sled hockey in Houston.” He adds, “We went from zero sleds a year ago to twenty-one sleds…a rear end in every sled.”

One of those fannies belongs to a Joseph Montemayor. No legs and missing most of one arm—technically a triple amputee—Montemayor is a regular at the Saturday morning sessions at the Memorial City Mall rink. O’Neill says the player’s progress has been remarkable.

Another luminary in the STARskaters constellation is a man named Ramiro, who O’Neill says loves sled hockey so much he’s never late. Make that rarely. O’Neill recalls that recently, Ramiro had been tardy five or ten minutes. When O’Neill asked why, he says Ramiro told him, “'Well, I did thirty miles (on a bike) this morning.’”

Joseph, Ramiro, and the increasing number of other sled hockey players benefit from volunteers’ dedication. O’Neill says, “Anybody involved in hockey knows hockey players have big hearts. They’ll do anything.”

Among them are kids from local hockey programs. “Most times, you can’t get these kids out of bed.” Yet entire teams rise early and shine on Saturday mornings.

Countless teenagers and adults, including gold-medal winners from the US Paralympics Sled Hockey team—Taylor Lipsett, Lonnie Hannah, James Dunham, and Pat Sapp—have contributed to the success of O’Neill’s organization.

“More precious than gold,” says O’Neill “is ice time.” Because only a handful of rinks are available in Houston, STARskaters depends upon the generosity of rink managers like Carl Sasyn, an American Hockey League linesman and general manager of Rink Management Services Corporation. The company operates rinks in many states, including Texas, New York, and Wisconsin.

“No way we’d have growth in the past year,” says O’Neill, because without the consistent donation of ice time, players won’t improve.

O’Neill thanks his lucky stars for what hockey has given him: the friends and experiences that he believes all skaters, regardless of ability, should have available to them. He's also grateful for all the volunteers, donations, and participants who've contributed to the success of STARskaters.

O'Neill encourages embryonic stars to evolve, to initiate similar programs in their communities. “It’s time well spent, a great way to start your weekend, spreading the joy of skating and hockey.” There are lots of ways to volunteer, he adds. “Everybody has something to give.”

So channel your inner galactic halo from here on Earth. Spur that solar wind, and fire that stellar pulsar for all to see.