By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
Off the ice, they are kids with autism, cerebral palsy or attention deficit disorders. But once they leave the bench, their disabilities melt away and they become part of a team.
They are the Black Swamp Ice Frogs, an ice hockey team for players with disabilities. The team makes room for people to play the sport regardless of their abilities.
“It’s really neat to watch the kids play,” said Heather Sayler, whose son, Ethan, plays with the Ice Frogs. “It’s making them fit in.”
“No one is looking at you and judging you,” said Ethan’s father, Todd Sayler.
The Ice Frogs’ current players range from age 4 to 35. Some of the common disabilities are autism, Down syndrome, respiratory problems, physical impairments, cerebral palsy, and attention deficit disorders. The Ice Frogs hockey team was formed in 2012, and has about 15 players. All the teams in their league play no-contact hockey.
Sue Kepling’s grandson, Dylan, 18, is non verbal and has 13 disorders. But that doesn’t keep him off the ice.
“To see him stand on ice skates, with all his disabilities, is amazing,” Kepling said.
But ice hockey is expensive. And ice hockey for kids with disabilities can have crippling costs. The parents are not asked to help with expenses, since that would make it impossible for some of the players to participate.
“We want the kids there,” Kepling said.
Ice time alone at the BGSU Ice Arena costs the team $2,600 a year.
The team has never had new equipment. They started out five years ago with hand-me-downs, and continue trying to make do. It became glaringly obvious last year at a tournament game that the Ice Frogs looked like the rag-tag Bad News Bears of hockey.
“We’ve been using used hockey equipment since we started,” Heather Sayler said. Shoelaces are missing from the skates. Pads are falling apart. Helmets are far from the latest technology in protection.
Then there’s the unpleasant factor of incredibly sticky equipment, with a mouse nest being found in one of the equipment bags last year.
“When we meet other teams, we look like the Bad News Bears on ice skates,” Kepling said.
Beyond uniforms and regular gear, there’s the expense of adaptive equipment. One player uses a metal harness system, and some use “walkers” on the ice. Others need special ice walkers that include seats.
“Some of our players have physical disabilities that require a special blade on the skates,” said Shannon Anderson, secretary of the Ice Frogs team.
During a recent weekly practice at the Ice Arena, the players put on their gear and got on the ice. There was no yelling by coaches, and pucks that didn’t quite make the goal were given a helpful push into the net by BGSU hockey players who were helping out.
Making goals is the best part of hockey for Ethan Sayler, 12.
“We get to shoot goals. I like doing the dance after we make goals,” Ethan said. “I like working together. I like passing to my friends.”
Winning is also big on Ethan’s favorite list – but he’s OK with losing, he added.
Winning has a different definition with the Ice Frogs. For Josh Anderson, 8, being a “floater” on the ice is a victory. “Josh likes to physically be skating around,” Anderson said of her son who has autism.
Then there’s 6-year-old Harry Anderson. “He just really likes going fast, and likes learning the skills,” his mom said. “This is a great way to get him out learning skills without the pressure.”
Anne Schooley, at age 35, is the most senior member of the team. There is no shaming on this team based on age or ability.
“I’ve been skating since I was 5 years old. I like shooting the puck,” she said.
In the goal was A.J. Fritz, who started out three years ago using the walker to get around the ice. That didn’t last long, according to his parents, Mike and Beth Fritz.
“He took two rounds with that walker, and that was enough for him,” his mom said.
As goalie, A.J.’s is covered with protective layers. “His uniform weighs more than he does,” Beth Fritz said.
“He took to this like a duck to water,” his dad said. “He’s a very active child and he likes the fast paced play. He loves being a goalie.”
The Bowling Green Community Foundation just awarded the Ice Frogs hockey team a grant to help pay for shin guards, gloves and shoulder pads. The team also recently received a grant from the Toledo Walleyes for new helmets, skates, hockey sticks, ice walkers and a goalie uniform.
To raise more funds, the team is holding a spaghetti dinner, bake sale and silent auction on Feb. 3, from 4 to 7 p.m., at First United Methodist Church, 1526 E. Wooster St., Bowling Green. Tickets at the door will be $8 for adult dinners and $6 for children ages 5 to 14. The dinners will include all-you-can-eat spaghetti, salad, garlic bread, dessert and beverages.
So far, the silent auction items include a Mud Hens First Game Pitch package, Walleye hockey tickets, Amazon gift cards, free oil changes, haircuts, BGSU game tickets, and gift certificates for pizzas, flowers, cookies and to many other local stores.