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Pecoras aiming to help bring special needs hockey program to Atlanta

Nicholas Pecora, a third-grader at Level Creek Elementary, practices with his squirt team at the Duluth IceForum. Despite being hearing impaired, Nicholas is able to play on a regular house league team. But he also spends a week every summer just playing with other hearing impaired and deaf children at a special camp in Chicago. Below, Nicholas’ father, David, is one of the team’s coaches. (Photos: Amanda Hertel)

Nicholas Pecora, a third-grader at Level Creek Elementary, practices with his squirt team at the Duluth IceForum. Despite being hearing impaired, Nicholas is able to play on a regular house league team. But he also spends a week every summer just playing with other hearing impaired and deaf children at a special camp in Chicago. Below, Nicholas’ father, David, is one of the team’s coaches. (Photos: Amanda Hertel)

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Gwinnett’s Nicholas Pecora, a third-grader at Level Creek Elementary, is coached by his dad, David, on a team at the IceForum in Duluth. Nicholas is hearing impaired, but plays on a regular squirt team as well as in the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association program. (Photo: Amanda Hertel)

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Gwinnett’s Nicholas Pecora, who goes to Level Creek Elementary, practices with his squirt team at the IceForum in Duluth in August. (Photo: Amanda Hertel)

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Gwinnett’s Nicholas Pecora, who goes to Level Creek Elementary, celebrates during the USA Disabled Hockey Festival as part of the deaf and hard of hearing team in March West Chester, Pa. (Special Photo)

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Gwinnett’s Nicholas Pecora, who goes to Level Creek Elementary, holds the Staley Cup with Chicago Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville during the annual Tony Granato Hockey School for the Hearing Impaired camp in 2010. Nicholas, who is hearing impaired, has gone to the camp for five straight years. (Special Photo)

It’s been hockey, always hockey, for Nicholas Pecora.

He begged his dad, David, to play when he was 3. David had to fudge his age a little in order to register him.

Nicholas’ first project in kindergarten was to make a book about himself. It was called “I play hockey” and illustrated with stick figures.

David would hear the rhythmic thumps of pucks hitting the wall in his unfurnished basement each day.

“He has a love for it,” David said.

It’s not so different a story for lots of other kids.

But it wasn’t as easy for Nicholas, now a third-grader at Level Creek Elementary, as it is for lots of other kids.

He’s hearing impaired. And the benefits from playing — particularly at the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association’s annual camp in Chicago specifically for kids like him — have far outweighed the challenges.

“His involvement with USA disabled hockey has made such a difference in his short life,” David said.

Which is why David wanted to get involved in a new team for kids here.

He joined Dan Carmody in the effort to start up the Atlanta Sparks Special Needs Hockey program. They are in the process of raising funds for ice time and equipment after working to establish the infrastructure. The program has a grant from USA Hockey and is ready to start practices in October at The Cooler in Alpharetta.

David is going to be coaching. Nicholas and his older sister, Julia, who just started playing hockey last year after tiring of competitive cheerleading, will be helping out. The program isn’t just for hearing impaired kids. It’s for any special needs kids, including those with Down Syndrome or autism, of any age and no experience is necessary. If fact, they ask that it’s not someone able to play in a regular league, like Nicholas does at the Duluth IceForum.

“We’re trying to get the interest,” David said. “Hopefully we’ll get to the place where we have so many kids we don’t know what to do. Our goal this year is to get it off the ground.

“I’ve seen what it’s done for him. And for me, too.”

When Nicholas first started playing, his audiologist suggested a week-long hockey camp he might be interested in. The camp, for deaf and hearing impaired kids, has been going on in Chicago for 40 years. It was originally named for Stan Mikita and, about the time Nicholas started going, was taken over by Tony Granato.

“The coolest thing is the first year we were up there, we checked into the hotel. We get in the elevator and there’s five other kids getting on. They’ve got their hockey bags and sticks and they all have cochlear ears or hearing aids,” David said. “And you could just see the wheels turning (for Nicholas). As a parent, it was a wow moment. It was just a great experience.”

Nicholas has held the Stanley Cup — with the help of Blackhawks head coach Joe Quenneville — and met a host of NHLers, including Chris Kunitz and Bobby Orr. Kids from all over the U.S. who qualify pay nothing to attend the camp.

“My goal is to create here what’s up in Chicago,” David said. “Nicholas is fortunate enough to where he can participate in sports with other ‘normal’ kids. I’m lucky in that respect. He has an issue, but the way I look at it is he’s got glasses for his ears.

“Even if kids can’t be in a regular league, this gives them a chance to get on the ice and play.”

Nicholas has hearing aids, camouflage colored, and David makes sure to use a lot of gestures so he knows what’s going on during practices.

“He’s at the age now (9) where he knows he’s got to watch,” David said. “He’s got to pay attention.”

David also lets the referees know before games that Nicholas might not hear the whistle.

“He’s adapted very well,” David said.

Nicholas led his Duluth team to a championship last season, scoring the game’s first four goals, and was named MVP.

“You want your kids to do well, but the most fulfilling thing for me was last year, we were in the championship game, we were up 4-0,” David said. “He had three breakaways and he pulled up to look for a pass.

“You don’t think they’re paying attention, but they are. He’s the sweetest kid. He’s becoming more and more of a leader now. I love seeing that.”

For more information on the new Atlanta Sparks program, go to americanspecialhockey.org/team/atlanta-sparks or email Carmody at ddcarmody@gmail.com.