John Hill: In Pawtucket, hockey program opens up a world of possibilities for special-needs players

John Hill: In Pawtucket, hockey program opens up a world of possibilities for special-needs players

By John Hill
Providence Journal Staff Writer

PAWTUCKET — Jerry Noel said there's no mistaking a Saturday morning during hockey season at his house.

By around 9:30 a.m. his young son Aaron, who has autism, will have laid out his gear, hockey helmet, sticks and pads, all ready for his 11:30 a.m. game at the Dennis Lynch Arena.

"Two hours before we have to leave," Noel said, "he has all his stuff out, waiting to go."

Aaron was on the ice, in goal, Sunday, for the second annual Rhode Island Special Needs Hockey Program's College Day with about two dozen other young hockey players, from early single digits to late teens with autism, Asperger's or Down's syndrome.

They were all suited up and on the ice drilling and then playing with players from the Brown University men's and women's teams, as well as Johnson & Wales University and Barrington High School.

Noel said he has watched his son blossom in the program. Goalie was not his usual position, he said, but Aaron was willing to try it.

"He feels good enough to be out of his comfort zone," he said. "This is just one of the things it has given him an incredible, incredible confidence."

Patrick Embury started playing two years ago, when he lived in North Kingstown. His family moved to Brewster, Massachusetts, but he still makes the trek to Pawtucket every weekend of hockey season.

"I never thought that I would play hockey in my life," he said. "It's opened up a huge world of possibilities to me."

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