The players worked pucks along the ice, dueling three-on-three in a small game across the width of the rink, oblivious to the family members taking photos from the stands above.
At the far end of the rink, a coach stopped play for a moment to explain something to the players, who were working on an offensive drill. Then quickly, they returned to playing.
And while on the surface it might look like any other youth sports league, for players like Ryan Herrington and Garrett DeTata, the Brick Stars Challenger Hockey program is far more than just a hockey program; it’s a chance to be like other kids.
“He looks forward to it,” Michael DeTata of Brick said of Garrett, 8, who has Asperger’s syndrome, which is part of the autism disorder spectrum. “It’s the first sport he’s ever stayed with. He keeps asking when the season starts again.”
“He gets to play hockey now, just like his brothers do,” Jean Herrington of Point Pleasant said of her son, Ryan, 22, who has Down’s Syndrome. “When they started this it was a no-brainer.”
To Alex DePalma, the driving force behind the Brick Stars, starting the program, back in 2009, was a no-brainer.
“We just started out to provide something different from Tee ball and basketball,” said DePalma, who’s also coach of the Point Pleasant Borough hockey team. “It’s just taken off.”
It’s because it’s taken off that DePalma and the Brick Stars were honored on Friday as New Jersey Hero of the Month for April.
Mary Pat Christie, the governor’s wife and head of the New Jersey Heroes foundation, presented DePalma with the award – a pin and a check for $7,500 to the Brick Stars – in a ceremony at Ocean Ice Palace.
Mrs. Christie noted that while the program has had a huge impact for the roughly 40 children who play on the Brick Stars, it’s not just locally that it’s had that impact.
“More importantly, he (DePalma) is spreading this program throughout the state,” she said. “People want to emulate it and replicate it.”
Mrs. Christie said there are programs at South Mountain Arena in West Orange and also in South Jersey in the Camden area.
“That he grew so fast (the Brick Stars had eight participants in 2009) and the gravity to which he has affected them made him an obvious choice.”
“He has given these kids such a sense of empowerment,” Mrs. Christie said.
DePalma was quick to note that a key to the program’s success has been the assistance of many volunteers, especially the hockey-playing students in the area, including his team at Point Boro.
“They get up at 7 a.m. every Sunday to be here,” he said, as he motioned to the members of his team, who joined the festivities at the Ice Palace. “I am the face of the program, but I share it with all these kids,” kids who include players from Brick, Christian Brothers Academy and Red Bank Regional.
DePalma was stunned when he got the phone call notifying him about the award. “I thought it was a solicitation at first,” he said.
“We’ve been recognized locally, but this is statewide,” he said. “To know that it went as high as it did is amazing.”
And the donation from the NJ Heroes foundation is extremely helpful, he said.
“What this donation means is longevity,” he said. “With longevity, it grows.”
The program operates at a minimal cost to the participants, he said, but it does have expenses to cover, including the cost of ice time, which is $400 per hour.
“With the economy the way it is, you never know how donations will be,” DePalma said. “I can look past the immediate future with this.”
The program serves primarily children and young adults with developmental disabilities, DePalma said, but they also have children who have physical limitations as well.
“We don’t turn anyone away,” he said.
And they inspire him.
“The courage it takes for these kids to step on the ice is amazing,” he said. “They have all these things going on, and now you want me to skate, too?”
But the transformations have been amazing, he said.
And parents agree.
“The recognition is great because Alex is doing it for all the right reasons,” said Jean Herrington, whose sons Evan, 18, and Owen, 15, play for DePalma at Point Boro. She has two younger sons, Daniel, 13, and Will, 10, and all of them play hockey. The Brick Stars allowed Ryan to be a part of that, she said.
It’s also created special memories for Evan, who’s graduating from Point Boro this spring.
“He’s our self-proclaimed mascot,” Evan said, noting that Ryan attended every game as Point Boro had a season to remember, reaching the quarterfinals of the NJSIAA public ice hockey playoffs. Ryan would give the team pep talks, Evan said, and cheer them on at every turn. “He was always picking the boys up when we had a tough loss, and the team welcomed him in.”
“It’s nice to see him on Sundays in a different environment,” Evan said.
“It’s nice to come out and help all the kids,” said Owen. “It’s rewarding.”
For Garrett DeTata, the effects of the program have been more than just teaching him to play hockey, his family said. In addition to Asperger’s, Garrett has apraxia, a disorder that affects his ability to speak. Participating in the Brick Stars has helped him become more vocal and helped him interact more with everyone.
“Before (the program), he would go off by himself and play when he’d go to someone’s house, instead of playing with the other children,” said his grandmother, Marietta DeTata. “Now he’s more independent.”
“I think his social skills have gotten much better,” his grandfather, Angelo DeTata said. “He definitely interacts more with everyone, adults and children.”
“We were trying to find something to keep him occupied,” said Michael DeTata, who played soccer and football growing up. Soccer and tee ball didn’t work out, he said, but the hockey has been the right fit. “He’s loved it since day one.”
“It’s his extended family,” Michael said. “They’re out here having fun and they’re not worried about anything else. There’s always smiles on the faces of the volunteers and the kids.”
Mrs. Christie said DePalma was nominated for the award by someone who knows him through his construction job, and executive director Casey Girardi thought he and the program were a perfect fit as soon as she saw them in action the first time.
“All the nominees are vetted,” she said, but added that anyone can nominate someone for the award, through the foundation’s website, newjerseyheroes.org.
DePalma’s wife, Carrie, who attended the presentation, said despite the time involved, DePalma does a good job of balancing everything.
“He’s very organized,” she said. “And it helps that he has an understanding boss.”
As he chased his high school players off the ice and sent them back to class – “They just love being out here,” he said, shaking his head and chuckling slightly – he smiled as he acknowledged how special the last four months have been, between the Panthers’ success and now this honor.
“It’s been an incredible year,” he said. “These kids were a big part of that.”
If you would like to make a donation to support the Brick Stars program, DePalma noted that it is a 501(c)(3) organization, making donations tax deductible as allowed by law. Donations can be made through its website.