MARIETTA, Ga. - It may be spring, but hockey is still in season for dozens of players at the Marietta Ice Center.
What they bring to the ice, are skills and talents that stand out from any other hockey program in Georgia. Many of them are playing the game on sleds, and just as in conventional hockey, body-checking is permitted. The players propel themselves with a pair of small hockey sticks that they also use to shoot the puck.
"It's great. We're just having a blast. The physicality of it. The speed of it. We're having so much fun," said Gavin Cloy.
Cloy, who also plays wheelchair basketball, is a double amputee. He lost both legs in a train accident when he was 21.
This is Cloy's first time out on the ice with the Atlanta Sparks, a hockey program that offers young and adult athletes with disabilities and special needs the opportunity to clash on the ice, build confidence, make friends and have fun.
"On the sled side, we have individuals that have been involved in car accidents, spinal meningitis, individuals with cerebral palsy. We also have kids with autism, Down syndrome, kids with hearing impairment and brain injuries," said program founder and director Dan Carmody.
Carmody told Channel 2's Tom Regan he was inspired to start the program after a terrible tragedy. The mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary school in Connecticut moved him to help children with special needs have a more fulfilling life. He has a son who has Asperger syndrome, a high functioning form of autism.
"My son, I really felt hockey helped him, so I wanted to give back to those who might not be able to make it on a team. It's the best think I have ever done. It's really meaningful," Carmody said.
Carmody teamed up with another hockey fan, Ed Sneddon, who referees games and acts as head coach for the sled program. Sneddon started a sled hockey program for the disabled players four years ago and has now combined that program into Atlanta Sparks.
"Dan contacted me last fall and said, ‘Let's get the sled program going again,’ and ever since, it's been great. We have the special needs and sled hockey groups paired together," said Sneddon.
Sneddon told Regan he has played hockey since he was 4, skating in college and competing in a semi-pro league.
"It's like being able to give back to the sport. It's so rewarding," said Sneddon.
Members of the program compete with visiting teams that include specials needs players and those in other leagues who also play in sleds.
Teenager Matthew Perry, who has cerebral palsy, said the program gives him a unique opportunity to build athletic skills.
"'If I didn't do the sled hockey program I wouldn't be doing any sport at all," said Perry.
Carmody said the Atlanta Sparks program is one of a handful across the country that fill a void in the community.
"Regular teams will not take individuals with disabilities. We're actually someone that wants them. We want them to be a part of the program and have this in their lives,” Carmody said.
The program is offered at no charge and funded entirely through donations. The players usually gather on Saturdays at rinks throughout the city. Carmody said the biggest challenge to keep the program going, is paying for ice time. Carmody said he tries to buy 19 to 20 sessions per year, which cost $330 per hour. The director plans to expand the program to include wounded war veterans.
"It's challenging, but this means so much to the kids and everyone else in the program. Every donation helps bring joy to these players," said Carmody.
Christopher Perry, who has cerebral palsy, said it's changed his life.
"It's great. It's a team sport I can be good at,” Perry said.
If you would like to donate to the Atlanta Sparks Special Hockey program or volunteer, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Dan Carmody at 770 751-7112. You can also donate by going to www.gofundme.com/AtlantaSparks.