Regulators’ special needs program a winner

By Matt Mackinder

When Utah Regulators president Mike Holmes first helped create a special needs hockey program in Utah back in 2008, he had no idea it’d grow to be as big as it is today.

The organization has a south team located in Provo and a north team in Salt Lake City and is comprised of male and female players ages 5-50 with cognitive disabilities. The only requirement to participate is that the players be ambulatory and able to take verbal instruction. 

The ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies are a main supporter, while the Regulators are the main sponsor, providing gear and finances when needed. The Grizzlies provide the jerseys, ice and tickets to their games.

There are no fees assessed to the players due to the high cost of care and treatment, and games are played The Peaks in Provo and the Olympic Oval in Salt Lake City.

“Some of the players are quite memorable,” said Holmes. “Kanu had great difficulty wearing his helmet. He’d tear it off and throw it across the ice. It took three years for him to understand that he couldn’t go onto the ice without it. He still hates it, but wears it anyways.”

“Jhessi wouldn’t speak, but loved being on the ice. For four years, she needed full-time support on the ice. Finally, one day when the support wasn’t right there when she was ready to go, she just couldn’t wait any longer and just took off on her own. She’s been doing it ever since.

“Douglas has cerebral palsy and had one foot that turned inward. He couldn’t speak, but had devised his own sign language. We jerri-rigged a tripod that would allow him to be strapped in and keep him from falling over. He insisted he be allowed to go on the ice without help and did just fine.”

Deann Torsak, a parent and co-manager of the south team, has been impressed with the program since Day 1.

“My son, Jathan, is one of the original six from when this started and hockey has given him a sense of belonging,” said Torsak. “He had played other sports in the past with some success, but never really felt any connection to them. With hockey, it’s a completely different story.”

Rich Henricksen has a daughter, Karissa, in the program and coaches the north team. His wife, Tammie, is one of the team managers.

“Karissa has Down Syndrome and hockey helps keep her active,” said Henricksen. “Playing hockey has been a big positive for her. In the past, she’d watch dad and her two brothers play. Now, she has her own team, everyone watches her, and she loves it.

“She loves skating with her friends and scoring goals. She’s always packed and ready for practice on Saturday and can’t wait to get on the ice.”

The local high school hockey teams play games with the teams, making sure each kid scores at least one goal. The special needs kids generally win every game by a score of at least 25-0. 

“The volunteers and high school players have been wonderful, working with a great deal of patience and dedication,” said Holmes. “They generally pay for the ice and donate an afternoon as volunteers, all to make memorable experiences for some very special kids.”

Holmes says the players love the camaraderie, the colorful jerseys (some insist on sleeping in them), equipment and the idea that others are there to watch them.

“My association with these kids has been wonderful,” he said.