Avalanche Kidz development program fills a growing need for inclusive hockey in Quebec
Program was co-founded by mom who struggled to find spot for her autistic son to play
Since 8-year-old Yaakov started playing with Avalanche Kidz development hockey he is often the first person awake at the Davidson household on Sunday mornings.
"He was up at 6:20 a.m., bugging everyone. 'Get up, let's go, let's go!' We were like 'there's no ice yet. You have to wait,'" said Yaakov's mother, Ariel, while standing rinkside laughing.
"He looks forward to Sunday, every day of the week, and it's just been fantastic."
Ariel Davidson says her autistic son recently fell in love with hockey by watching his idols like Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield play for the Montreal Canadiens. But when it came time to find him a place to play, she was disappointed with what she found.
"The problem is that it's very hard, because everywhere you go it's not adapted for kids with special needs, it's not adapted for anybody who is different. Although, probably a minor league team would have taken him, I didn't want to put him in the position where he ends up either sitting on this bench every week or frustrated because he can't keep up with everybody else," said Davidson.
Avalanche Kidz was born out of that need.
Sun Youth, a charity that provides community services and field sports teams, connected Davidson with Vinny and Linda Matteo and then, as a group, they partnered with the Côte Saint-Luc Minor Hockey Association to start a new, inclusive hockey program.
After a pilot program in the spring of 2022, about 20 kids were part of the first group to skate with Avalanche this past fall. Since then, the number of kids who registered to join has grown to 65. Organizers say more than 120 have already signed up for next season.
"They have soccer and they have other sports that they can go into but as a winter sport, you know it's Canada's sport right? So I think we need to introduce it to our kids and just let them have a good time," said Avalanche co-founder and vice-president Linda Matteo.
Right now Avalanche have two hours of ice time each week, paid for by the Côte Saint-Luc Minor Hockey Association. The ice is crowded.
"We will definitely need more ice, we need more hours, we need more space," said Matteo. On top of the kids there is also a small army of volunteers for coaching and support. Some children need one-on-one attention most of the time.
"I won't lie, the challenges are very hard," said Matteo.
Quebec lags behind Ontario for special needs hockey
With over 47 years in coaching hockey under his belt, Billy Sampson has been all over Canada and even to Japan where he coached women there in the 1990's.
Now, one of his jobs is volunteer head coach for the Avalanche. He believes that Quebec could do better when it comes to giving every child a chance to play hockey.
"What we do here is very minute compared to what's in Ontario. In Ontario, I think they're 15 to 20 years ahead of us," said Sampson.
"Inclusion means, I have a friend and even though I may be challenged in some way, why can't I play with my friends? And this is a way of introducing it to them and having them enjoy what they want to do."
Hockey Quebec does have a program for children with special needs like autism called Hockey Adapté. It was started in 2014 and its manager, Vicky Jolicoeur, says it services around 100 children in the province.
She says in seven towns across Quebec, kids in the program have access to the ice for one hour per week. But currently there is no program in Montreal.
Jolicoeur says she is open to speaking with the Avalanche and looking at ways to include them in the Hockey Adapté family.
"We're definitely speaking with Hockey Quebec. We need their support. We need their backing. We can see that our neighbors in Ontario have all of that support coming from all over, we need the same thing," said Matteo.
But for now, with few options for games in Montreal, the Avalanche are looking to Ontario for a partner.
One program they would like to emulate is the Capital City Condors in Ottawa.
According to the Condors' director of coaching, Courtney Rego, they have six programs for all skill levels. The options for players range from free skating to playing full games complete with rules like icings and offsides. They also have an all-female team.
"In the upcoming years, keep an eye out, 'cause we will be back and we will be playing some tournaments against everyone," said Matteo.
Long-term funding remains a challenge
To keep Avalanche as accessible as possible, organizers have opened up the Sunday ice time to everyone including to children from low-income families and kids who recently fled the war in Ukraine.
"We try to make it a family, where everybody gets to know everybody and everybody is part of something," said Davidson.
Some families get help from programs like Jumpstart and most of the equipment the kids use comes from donations.
But the association that pays for their ice time at Concordia University's Ed Meagher Arena each week says it may need to focus recruitment more tightly next season.
Côte Saint-Luc Minor Hockey president Matt Cutler worries about funding as the program expands. He says each hockey association in Montreal needs to make efforts to provide opportunities for children with special needs.
Davidson believes that the spiking numbers of people who want to sign up shows how much of a need there is for inclusive and affordable hockey. Organizers are looking for more ice time to accommodate the growing number of players.
She says getting her autistic son involved in the sport has changed his life.
"He doesn't have friends necessarily, like we don't get phone calls at home when there is no school. You know, the March break — it was just kind of me and him and his siblings. He's too young at the moment so he doesn't necessarily realize it but coming here, everybody talks to him," Davidson says.
"I feel proud and I'm just so happy that he found something that can make him feel happy."