Win or lose, Special Hockey scores

David Bebee/Record staff Guelph Giants goalie Ian Amos makes a save on Kitchener Ice Pirates forwards Jamie Harrison (left) and Tony Borghese during a recent game in Kitchener. As the score clock flirted with the final buzzer of their regular season, the Kitchener Ice Pirates trailed the Guelph Giants by three goals and had zero chance of coming back.

But when a trio of the home team’s forwards crashed their opponents’ crease and poked the puck behind their sprawling goaltender with only minutes to go, the bench erupted in a burst of blue and orange hockey jerseys.

And while the Pirates would go on to lose their season finale by a score of 9-5, the entire team skated to centre ice and met the Giants with genuine smiles and hearty handshakes.

For the Kitchener Ice Pirates, a local hockey program for developmentally challenged players, it doesn’t matter who wins and who loses. It doesn’t matter how many goals they score, or how many they give up. All that matters for those 45 minutes at a time, whether it’s their first game of the season or their last, is having fun.

According to Kirsten Carr, director of special hockey operations for the Kitchener Minor Hockey Association and general manager of the Ice Pirates program, the goal of the club is to make the sport accessible to individuals who may not otherwise have the opportunity to play.

“It’s for anybody who has a developmental delay that would keep them from participating on a typical team or in a typical league,” she says. “Whether it be autism, Down syndrome or fetal alcohol syndrome, we make it possible for everyone to join.”

Since it was launched in 2008, the Ice Pirates program has grown from eight players to about 50. They range in age from five years old to adulthood and are separated into three teams – fundamentals of hockey, junior and intermediate/senior. Players are assigned to their teams based on ability instead of age.

Each of the club’s teams, which generally practise once a week and play anywhere between six and 17 games throughout the season, compete against other special hockey teams from communities across Ontario.

The biggest way the Ice Pirates program differs from traditional minor hockey programs, Carr says, is its flexibility.

“When you join a house league and you know there’s a game or a practice or a tournament, you’re expected to go, no excuses. With us, if the player’s having a bad day and doesn’t show up, that’s OK. When they come back the next time, they’ll be welcomed back as a regular member of the team.”

Jamie Harrison, who has skated for the Ice Pirates intermediate/senior squad for the past several years, says his favourite aspect of special hockey is the lack of contact.

“I like that there’s no bodychecking,” says Harrison, a Grade 9 student at Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate and Vocational School. “It’s friendly hockey and we don’t get hurt.”

The 15-year-old, who wears No. 87 in honour of Sidney Crosby, says he always wanted to play hockey growing up and is grateful the Ice Pirates program finally gave him a chance to do so.

“I didn’t think I could ever play, but my mom heard about the team from someone at work and she signed me up,” he said. “I really like the team a lot.”

Harrison, who alternates between forward and goalie but prefers playing between the pipes, says his favourite thing about being on the team is the friendships he’s forged over the years.

“I like hanging out with my teammates,” he says. “The year-end party is always lots of fun.”

Carr says it’s the social aspect of the club that makes it truly unique.

“We have players who are being invited to birthday parties for the first time ever, we have players who are starting to have sleepovers with their friends from the team,” she says. “When you’re that age you always want to be able to hang out and play video games or whatever, and now they’ve got those people they have a connection with.”

Alex Morrison began playing special hockey with the Cambridge Ice Hounds in 2007, but joined the Ice Pirates when they were founded the following year. He says his favourite day of the season is the annual game against the Kitchener Rangers.

“I love facing the Rangers,” says the 16-year-old Grand River Collegiate Institute student. “It’s always fun, but I like it best when we win.”

“It’s a phenomenal event, and one our players look forward to tremendously every single year,” says Carr of the club’s annual tilt with the local OHLers. “The Rangers are amazing with how they participate and support the team.”

While the Ice Pirates wrapped up their regular season on March 2, their work is far from over; from March 14 to 16, the team will play host to 60 teams from Canada, England and the United States, at the 19th annual Special Hockey International tournament.

Carr, who says she is looking forward to having the tournament in her own backyard, expects it will be the highlight of the Ice Pirates’ season.

“It’s one of those things where everybody’s on the same page, everybody understands, everybody is accepting,” she says. “It’s a fabulous thing to be a part of.”

Ryan Bowman’s column appears on Wednesdays. He can be reached at

This article originally appeared in the Waterloo Region Record.