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The NHL Celebrates International Day of Persons with Disabilities with Talented Young Fans

Evan Yasser, 19, from Ocean Town, New Jersey, made NHL history on December 3rd, 2019 as its first neurodiverse commentator when he did the play-by-play for the New Jersey Devils’ game against the Las Vegas Golden Knights. Evan developed a taste for commentating at the age of 14 when he started calling baseball games and horseback riding. Earlier this year, he called a game for the Binghamton Devils, the AHL affiliate for the New Jersey Devils. Evan is a keen hockey fan who hopes to turn commentating into a full-time career.

This Devils game was full of such special opportunities. Through a partnership with the American Special Hockey Association, the New Jersey Devils celebrated International Persons of Disability week by connecting kids with abilities to hockey opportunities by inviting persons with special needs to cover all aspects of the game. For Jeff Scott, the Devils’ VP of Community Investment, the event was a way to “collectively raise awareness of this important sector of hockey.”

At the start of the game, Julianne “Juice” Horton, 21, of Binghamton, N.Y., performed the national anthem in American Sign Language. Unable to speak until age six, Juice started signing the anthem at local football games. Juice’s enthusiastic performance was one of the highlights of the game. Like Juice and Evan, Colleen Bryan, 20, of Verona, N.J., fulfilled her dream by photographing the game. Colleen’s favorite part of the game was fist-bumping the Devils players as they walked onto the ice and taking live-action photos during the game.

The New Jersey Devils also invited Junior Captains from the tri-state area special hockey teams to stand in the starting lineup alongside the Devils. They were joined by the Las Vegas-based Spectrum on Ice special hockey team for a skate after the first period. With team members ranging from 7 to 17, the intermission skate was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Executive Director of ASHA, Jen O’Brien, made sure to continue the celebration of International Persons of Disabilities week for the Spectrum on Ice team. The next day the team and their families got a tour of Madison Square Garden, where they were escorted by two-time Stanley Cup champion Adam Graves. Rick Nadeau, VP of Social Impact and Fan Engagement for the New York Rangers, enjoys making the game accessible and inclusionary. Nadeau also works closely with Garden of Dreams and he hopes that “just like school, everybody should have access to this opportunity.”

After a quick ride uptown, the team joined the Central Park North Stars to play hockey at Lasker Rink in Central Park to do what they love the most: play hockey! “Special hockey is the purest form of hockey you can ever find,” said ASHA President Brian Damiani. As an example, he cited seeing a one-on-one in which the defensemen fell down and the opposing player helped him up instead of shooting.

The last event of the day was a tour of the NHL Executive offices with their super cool table made with a center strip of ice and their Stanley Cup wall. Alicia Chin, NHL’s Senior Manager of Community Development and Culture, talked about why the NHL is passionate about their Hockey is for Everyone initiative: In the end, it’s all about “seeing the joy on their faces from being on the ice, making friends, and building a community where they can be their true selves.”

For the parents, this weekend was a great opportunity for their kids to really shine both on and off the ice. For parent, Holly Taylor, of Las Vegas, the kids “take what they learn off the ice and they are gracious, courteous and kind, and they help one another. It’s not just learning to play together as a team but the community. It warms my heart.” This event really shows that hockey is for everyone and that each kid has their own special superpower.