USA Hockey is bringing the 5th Annual National Disabled Festival to Buffalo, NY the weekend of March 20-22nd, and although most attendees will be familiar with Sled hockey, another hockey league will be featured for the first time in Buffalo.

Special Hockey, under the direction of Mike Steffan, will be making its Buffalo debut at the Festival, expected to draw some 1,500 athletes from around the country. Also featured at the festival will be the Deaf/Hearing Impaired, Amputee, and Sled hockey divisions.

The intent of Special hockey is to ensure that individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities are able to play organized, competitive hockey. Special Olympics does not offer hockey and with the steady growth of interest in the sport, Steffan found it fitting to begin this league.

Mike's son Ryan traveled to Rochester last year to play. Ryan, who has Down syndrome, is an avid hockey fan. He manages the Buffalo State College hockey club and assists with Sweet Home High School's team. However, that did not satisfy Ryan's desire to play, and driving to Rochester once a week can be burdensome. Steffan and his wife Pam saw the need to establish a Buffalo-based team, which began this past fall.

Rochester has had a program for nine years and currently boasts about 60 players. The Buffalo team has 15 players ranging in age from 10 to 31. Although the beginner age should be 14, Steffan couldn't say no to the requests of a few ‘younger athletes". Two of the ‘feeder' programs are SABAH and Gliding Stars, the skating programs for individuals with disabilities.

Steffan's desire to start up a Buffalo program was simple. "My son has a loving interest in hockey, we wanted to make sure playing hockey was something he had in his life as a child with a disability."

Steffan welcomes leagues that may be interested in assisting his players. He is cautious to call it volunteer work, preferring to see it as willing players and teams that want to get involved in ensuring that this league has teams to play.

Special Hockey operates under the auspices of the American Special Hockey Association (ASHA), founded by Mike Hickey two year ago. The need was to bring together the nation's programs and lend support for growth and existence, provides seed money and educating coaches. A Board of Directors was established to address all aspects of the game. ASHA is an affiliate of USA Hockey.

"We felt there was a need do to the swiftness of growth, we needed a supportive body", said Hickey. Individual membership went up 76% from 2007 to 2008, the fastest growing segment of USA Hockey. Hickey's goal is to have 100 teams by next year.

Hickey noted it is "not just a recreational hockey program. It's used as a tool in (the players) daily lives, living in the community, living self-sufficiently, peer interactions." ASHA is currently involved with Gonzaga University in a study involving 20-30 players with autism assessing the benefits the game may have off the ice. The purpose of the study is to identify a correlation between hockey and social and independent living skills, looking for an impact on transition into adulthood in areas like employment and community living.

Hickey's Baltimore program will be one of 16 traveling to Buffalo for the festival. Other cities represented include Washington, DC, Columbus, Albany, and Rochester.

The game is designed to respect the talent level on the ice. You will rarely have penalties or icing calls. They have A, B, and C tiers to ensure that players can compete at their talent level. A being the most competitive, looking more like a good recreation league game, B serving more of an intermediate role and C more of a ‘learn to skate and shoot' level.

After the National Festival, Steffan and Hickey will be taking their clubs to Toronto on April 20th for the Special Hockey International tournament.

For more information or to donate to these programs, contact the Buffalo Thunder at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call 716-691-4530. The American Special Hockey Association can be reached at 410-451-1021 or email Mike Hickey at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Western New York Hockey Magazine, March 2009.