Finding his feet: Hockey camp helps boy's development

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Dan Sullivan, noted tough guy in pro hockey circles, stood and watched as a kid in one of his summer camps struggled to get up off the ice.

Raymond Moyer already had made incredible progress through the week. Affected with a moderate-to-mild form of cerebral palsy, Raymond couldn't even stand in his skates on the first day.

By the end of the camp, he was skating but Sullivan and his instructors still had to pick up Raymond if he fell. On the last day, Sullivan decided the grade-schooler, who he nicknamed "Razor," was going to have do it himself.

"I remember his grandparents were there, his mom, all the rest of the parents were in the stands," Sullivan said. "It was a big game. It was Friday. He went down at center ice and you could tell he hurt himself.

"And it hurt me more than any punch I've ever taken in my entire career to not go out and help him. But it was something that I knew he needed to teach himself, that he could do this, show him that he's capable of doing things on his own. Especially on the ice where his parents and us instructors aren't going to be there to help him."

Raymond got up. Slowly, but he got up.

"I remember his mom was in tears and the kids were clapping for him," Sullivan said. "He came over and they gave him high-fives. It was like, at the end of the day, he really taught us something. It's that kind of a situation where I'll never forget him.

"You can have tons of kids come through your camps and hopefully they learn something. But if no one learned something from us that day, I think we all learned a lesson. He was born into something that he didn't have a choice of and I think he's set an example for all our instructors and kids that day. You can do anything you want if you really put your mind to it."

That was three years ago.

This week, at the first of Sullivan's two weeklong instructional sessions in Gwinnett, Raymond is just another camper. Hockey transformed the Augusta native.

"Raymond, no matter what his disability is, when he gets on the ice, he has no disability," his mom, Monica Ready, said. "He's just as able as anybody else. So he feels like he's on an even playing field."

Sullivan started his "Come and Get It" hockey camps when he played for the Augusta Lynx seven years ago and expanded to include Gwinnett last year. This summer's second camp is set for July 26-30, again at the Duluth IceForum. It comes right after the camp he still offers in Augusta, even though the Lynx ceased operations almost two years ago.

Sullivan claims anyone willing to invest the time could have taught Raymond to skate.

"Anybody that would have spent that much time with him probably would have been able to accomplish that," the Gwinnett Gladiator and veteran forward said. "It's not like I have superpowers or anything."

That might depend on your perspective.

Raymond's mom paid for private skating lessons when he first got into hockey. Ready's father was a season-ticket holder for nine of the Lynx' 10 years and Raymond was at a lot of those games.

"He wanted to play hockey so bad," Ready said. "He did four sessions of ice skating lessons and they couldn't get him up off the ice."

Sullivan was out at the rink in Augusta and began talking to Ready.

"He came to me and said, 'I think I can work with your son and get him to skate, I understand he really has a passion for this,'" she said. "My son cried when I said I wasn't going to put him in ice-skating lessons anymore. So I had to let him go back out."

It also went against the advice of Raymond's physical therapist.

Though it took years before he was officially diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a chronic brain disorder that impairs control of movement, Raymond had been in therapy since he before he turned 3.

"When we found out it was cerebral palsy, she told us not to put him on the ice, that it would be a failure for him and he would never be able to accomplish it," Ready said. "And this is someone that had been with him for five years.

"So it was hard for me to say, OK, let's do it. But I could not tell him no. He was not hearing, 'No.' Then when he got hooked up with Dan, it was over with. That's been all he's been interested in."

Sullivan's wife, Liz, told Ready that the veteran of countless hours on the ice was on the phone that first week of camp, talking to people and trying to figure out how to get Raymond skating.

"The first day of camp I could hardly skate," said Raymond, now 11. "He's actually the one who taught me to skate.

"By the end of the week, I had gotten it."

Raymond improved so much by playing hockey that his regular school therapist told Ready he needed a higher level than they could provide. He made the equivalent of more than two years' progress in less than six months.

"So I take him to a private facility," she said. "Hockey has totally changed his life."

In more ways than just the physical.

"It's done a lot for him off the ice, too, just feeling like he belongs to something," Ready said. "He used to stay indoors and watch all the kids. We have a big bay window and he would watch all the kids play outside. He never had the drive or the confidence (to go out).

"Now he's right out there with them. And Dan has done that for him. Because Dan tells him all the time nobody can tell you that you can't do it. Only you know that you can do it and that's all that matters."

Raymond said there isn't anything he'd rather be doing.

It's not hard to see why when he so eloquently answers a question about how it felt to finally be able to skate.

"What did it feel like when you learned how to walk?" he said.

We may not remember that, but the point is well-made.

Being on the ice is many ways easier for Raymond, even though he's playing a difficult sport that takes years to learn.

"Yes! A lot of people say that I'm faster on ice than I am on land," he grinned. "And a lot of people think that hockey is easy. It's not."

Maybe that's why all the other campers were so supportive of Raymond's effort just to get up off the ice when he fell. They know how hard it is, with or without a disability. They know it deserves a high-five.

"It's the heart," his mom said.

In that way, Raymond and hockey are a perfect match.