Before and after Andy Jortner underwent surgery for pancreatitis and gall bladder disease last fall he was in excruciating pain. But each time his mother said her 28-year-old son still held his hands together and motioned as if controlling a puck.
“All he wanted to know is when he could play hockey,” his mother Catherine said.
The young man is one of 13 players on the Connecticut Chasers, a team for those with developmental disabilities in the Greater Hartford area. The Jortners are from Kensington and the current roster also includes players from towns such as West Hartford, Avon, Ellington, South Windsor and Simsbury.
Parents of players say the sport has many benefits. It not only helps the players with physical fitness and motor skills but also helps them develop a sense of pride in a team environment.
Jortner, who has autism, Down syndrome and a host of medical issues, can't ride a bike and has trouble with stairs. He was almost six before he could walk. But for the third year, he's playing hockey.
"This is a big deal for us," Catherine Jortner said.
With nine years' experience, goalie Steven Link, 43, of Ellington is the team's oldest player.
When he first came to the program he had never skated and fell over and over again, his father Edward said. But Steven couldn’t wait to get back on the ice.
“From that day forward, he’s just progressed really well,” said Edward Link, adding that his son excels in sports with a team environment.
Rosemary Vasil of Kensington, whose son Ken plays on the team, has long been friends with the Jortners and told them about the team. Vasil agrees it’s a great sense of camaraderie for the players and parents.
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “It’s the people that make it.”
General Manager Debra McAlenney of Simsbury, also a parent of player, said the game means so much to the participants.
“It really does so much for their self esteem,” she said. “It also promotes a great team experience.”
The team was started in 1997 by former Hartford Whaler Kelly Chase and the Connecticut Down Syndrome Congress.
Many players, including Ben McAlenney of Simsbury, have been there since the beginning.
It has facilitated athletes with such conditions as cerebral palsy, autism, down syndrome and severe learning disabilities.
The Chasers practices at the Avon Old Farms rink on Wednesday evenings in the fall and Trinity College’s Koeppel Community Center Sunday afternoons in the Winter. Players from both schools act as mentors and help the team's coaches.
The team also participates in many tournaments.
McAlenney hopes more players will come out and try the sport like Steven Link did nine years ago and her son and several others have since the beginning.
The Chasers play at a “B” or second-tier level but athletes of all abilities with developmental disabilities, age 8 and up, are accepted. Beginning skaters are welcome. The team happens to be all male at the moment but girls and women are welcome as well.
Although there are only a few weeks left in the winter session McAlenney said players are welcome. The team is reworking its fee schedule but McAlenney said rates would be prorated. Anyone interested in price and other details can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.