It was Thanksgiving weekend in 1994 when the seeds of a big idea were first planted. At first, it was just two teams, sharing the same dream and some ice time in St. Louis, giving developmentally challenged hockey players their chance to get into the game.
The following year, that two-team tournament grew to include four clubs and in 1996, Special Hockey International was born. Today, it has blossomed into a multi-day event that attracts more than 1000 players from 70 different clubs, including teams in Canada, the United States and Great Britain.
This year these incredible players arrive in Kitchener, ON for the latest installment of a tournament that has proven to be more than just a few games of hockey. As SHI President Michael Liotta will tell you, for many players, the event is like a mini Olympic Games.
"When you see the expressions on their faces as they march in during the opening ceremonies you can see the pride and honour that they feel," says Liotta, whose involvement with the organization started in 1998, when his son joined Toronto's Grandravine Tornadoes. Over the years, he has watched the participants relish an opportunity to have others look up to them, and the chance to connect with other players from other cities and countries.
"They make new friends, they reacquaint with old friends and they get to travel, see new places. I've learned that for many of our players this is the only opportunity they get to travel very far beyond their own community. The social aspect cannot be emphasized enough, whether it is at the meet and greet, in the arena lobby, at the hotels or at the closing banquet where they can let loose and party.
"Which is not to say that the hockey doesn't matter. The teams that participate in the Special Hockey International tournament compete to win, but they also embrace a unique spirit of friendship and fair play that gives every player an opportunity to experience an unforgettable moment.
Liotta has countless happy stories to share from his 15 years with the organization. But there is one in particular that leaps out at him, a moment shared with a participant when the tournament traveled to Orangeville, Ontario in 2010.
"I was presenting medals to the North Bay team and as I was putting one around the neck of one player he very proudly told me that he had scored his very first goal - ever - at that tournament," the President recalls.
"He had just turned 65."
Look for many more memories to be made when the puck drops on the 19th Annual Special Hockey International tournament on March 14 in Kitchener.
The Kitchener Rangers Hockey Club is in the business of helping players achieve their dreams. The young men who suit up for the club aspire to be professionals and the Rangers strive to give them the tools and stage they need to take the next step in their careers. But not every player who takes to the ice is looking to make a living out of it. Some are happy just to lace up their skates and get in the game.
So when the opportunity to lend support to Special Hockey International 2013 came around, the Rangers jumped at the chance to get involved and signed on as the title sponsor for the tournament, which will include games on the ice of the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium, the team's home rink.
"It's a unique opportunity for our community to support a type of hockey that doesn't always get a lot of attention" this tournament was coming to our community and we could help make that happen," says Chief Operating Officer Steve Bienkowski, citing the Rangers' bond with two of the participating teams as an additional incentive to come on board. For the past five seasons, the club has partnered with the Cambridge Ice Hounds and the Kitchener Ice Pirates to present a benefit game" an evening of hockey and fun that sees the Rangers players take on both the junior and senior teams. That relationship has shown Bienkowski and the organization the value of Special Hockey International. "I think what you see is what hockey can do for people. It's not about players who have gone on to the National Hockey League" it's about everyone, from young kids to adults. The fact that this tournament exists is great, because it brings the sport to players who otherwise might not be involved. It allows them enjoy the game and develop a passion for hockey."
Presenting this year's tournament was also an opportunity to show off the city that the Rangers have called home for 50 seasons. With 64 teams and their families and fans descending on Kitchener, he hopes that everyone will be impressed by the hospitality.
"When the organizing committee came to us, it was a chance to support the community," explains Bienkowski.
"There is a lot of mainstream sponsorship out there for high-level international events. This is in that same category. It's a good fit for us as a hockey organization, but we're also helping to bring people into our community for this tournament, where they can have a great experience and take a lasting impression away with them."
Since its official inception in 1944, the Kitchener Sports Association has been dedicated to supporting local minor sports and athletes, providing hundreds of thousands of dollars of assistance through grants and scholarships, while also recognizing the efforts of athletes and volunteers making an impact in the community. The organization is an integral part of Kitchener's sports history, and it all started when the first KSA volunteers came together to support building the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium, a facility that has since hosted some of the finest hockey moments in the city's history.
In March of 2013, that tradition will continue when the building opens its doors to Special Hockey International's 19th Annual Tournament. And while the funding of events like hockey tournaments is not part of KSA's mandate, the organization didn't hesitate to offer its support in a unique way. As the Legacy Patron of Special Hockey International, KSA and the Tournament organizers came together to establish a fund accessible to groups that work with special needs athletes. The $25,000 legacy fund, provided by KSA, will be available to social service agencies and not-for-profit organisations that serve the developmentally challenged and those with limitations in the community.
"It's a different kind of project for us, since we're not dealing only with minor sports-aged athletes " says Kitchener Sports Association President Bill Pegg. But he's quick to add that the decision to provide the funding was a 'slam dunk', passing through the KSA Operating Committee with a unanimous vote.
"Special needs athletes and their supporters doing their best to participate in the sports they love is certainly not far off our mandate. We just want to continue to spread the word in the community and support minor sports athletes and teams."
Pegg says the Tournament was also a natural fit for KSA because of the organisation's existing relationship with the Kitchener Rangers, Title sponsor of Special Hockey International 2013. A good deal of KSA fundraising is conducted through the 50/50 Draw at each Rangers home game, and the groups have joined together again to support a great event in the community.
During the Tournament, the Kitchener Sports Association will endeavour to present the recipients of the 2013 Special Hockey International Legacy Funding. Pegg explains that groups have been invited to submit their requests and all submissions go through a two-part approval process.
Special Hockey International 2013 will provide a lifetime of memories for its participants and their families, but the goodwill of the tournament will live on through the Kitchener Sports Association SHI Legacy Grants and the opportunities provided to deserving special needs athletes in the Region.
The Kitchener Sports Association meets monthly most of the year (except July, August and December), traditionally on the third Tuesday of the month at 6:30pm at the Edelweiss Sports Banquet Hall. If you have a passion for sports, The Association is open to anyone in the community wishing to attend or join the organization.
Visit www.kitchenersports.ca to learn more.