Playing host to the Kitchener Ice Pirates on Saturday afternoon, the Woolwich Sun Rays enjoyed their first-ever home game in front of cheering friends and family.
The hockey team was created last year for players with developmental delays as part of Special Hockey International.
“We hit the ice on September the 26th, that was our first ice time and we had 10 players. We’ve evolved from there to now we have 12 and another one considering coming out. We range in age. The youngest is seven and the oldest is 44,” said Julie Jamieson, a driving force behind the team.
The team was named after her late brother Ray who had Down’s syndrome and loved to play sports, especially ball hockey and road hockey.
The Sun Rays are in the process of working with Guelph to schedule two games for the middle of March, and they’ve got a small tournament coming up in Kitchener on the Family Day weekend. Their season will go until the ice comes out of the McLeod Arena, at the end of March.
They had their first game in December in Cambridge versus the Cambridge Blades.
“It was quite good. We borrowed some players because our bench is quite small and some of them aren’t in true game format yet. That was very generous of them. It turned out quite even. One of our own players managed to get a goal, the first on record, so that was nice. That was Robert Howell, he got our first goal. We were very pleased with what we saw that day, that they kept up nicely and seemed to be very much in the game and in the moment,” Jamieson said.
They’ve been practicing their skating skills and doing hockey drills for an hour each Saturday with the coaches, and they have a range of skills. She says some are quite keen and understand the game, while others are still coming along, which is to be expected.
“It’s a real mixed bag but good improvement. It’s really surprising to see where some of them came from hardly skating or having never skated to now being quite comfortable on their skates. Always lots of smiles and happy to come out. One of the counselors told me one of the players is so anxious to come he was asking at 9 o’clock in the morning if it was time to go to hockey yet. We’re coming along very well,” Jamieson said.
She says feedback from players and parents has been positive. The players are excited to be part of a team and eager to go to hockey each week. Parents are pleased to have a team close to home where their children can play at their level.
“What’s really nice about special hockey is the camaraderie on the ice of all the players. It’s not just your own teammates but even the other team. There’s just a general good fellowship among all the players. They help each other regardless of what jersey they’re wearing. That’s a very heartwarming thing to see and maybe something other hockey leagues could learn a bit from,” Jamieson said.
Larger centres like Kitchener have grown to where they divide their groups in terms of caliber. They have 80 on their roster so they can split them into groups like fundamental, junior, and senior. Jamieson hopes one day that may occur for the Sun Rays where they have such high registration that they can group them more appropriately. But she says they’re certainly satisfied right now with their first season’s numbers.
“We’ve had incredible support from the community, corporate sponsors and a lot of encouragement from every angle, Woolwich Minor Hockey being the primary, and the township and Elmira District Community Living and service clubs. Really we know we’ve got a lovely safety net around us for things that we’ll come across as we go along,” Jamieson said.
The Sun Rays will play at home again this Saturday versus the Cambridge Blades at 1 p.m. at the McLeod Arena in the Woolwich Memorial Centre.
They’ve also partnered with the Sugar Kings for the Kings’ Feb 21. game. They’ll have a booth set up with information on the team, photos from the season, and mini jerseys for sale.
“The Sugar Kings have also been very welcoming and embraced our initiative. Our players will be invited to be on the ice between periods one and two. So that’ll be very fun. We’re really pleased with the Sugar Kings’ interest in our group. And the kids are excited. Some of them are pretty big Sugar Kings fans so they see a lot of the games and they really look up to the Kings. To be part of their night on the big ice with the scoreboard and all is a very exciting event for those guys. They’re looking forward to that night for sure,” Jamieson said.