ARLINGTON, Va. -- The smiles on the faces of the American Special Hockey Association players at MedStar Capitals Iceplex on Saturday morning was evidence of their joy from being back on the ice together.
The hockey clinic hosted by the Washington Capitals was the first event with an NHL team since before the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020 for ASHA, which provides people with developmental disabilities a chance to learn and play hockey. And though no current Capitals players could participate because of NHL COVID-19 protocols, the 44 players from the NOVA Cool Cats, Washington Ice Dogs and Montgomery Cheetahs were thrilled to run some drills directed by Capitals alumni Peter Bondra and Paul Mulvey, ASHA staff and coaches from the Capitals Youth Hockey Development program.
"It's so exciting to see them back on the ice again together and then having this opportunity for them to actually be with the Caps and actually feel like they're part of the hockey community," ASHA executive director Jen O'Brien said. "It's a really big piece of all of this that we're trying to do and let them know they're also able to play and grow their skills and bring some of their creativity back to the game for everybody."
Following the International Day of People with Disabilities on Friday, the clinic continued the Capitals' long relationship with ASHA. Washington captain Alex Ovechkin hosted events with ASHA for six straight seasons, beginning in 2014, before being unable to last season due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
Ovechkin was disappointed he couldn't join the ASHA players on the ice Saturday, but they stayed after the clinic to watch the Capitals prepare to host the Columbus Blue Jackets at Capital One Arena (7 p.m. ET; 7 p.m. ET; NBCSWA, BSOH, ESPN+, NHL LIVE) with an optional morning skate. The ASHA players cheered each of the Capitals players when he stepped on the ice.
"Obviously, with the COVID situation it's kind of hard," Ovechkin said. "But I'm pretty sure the kids know we all want to be there, give them a smile, give them a good time and I hope soon or next year everything is going to be normal."
Sharing the ice with Ovechkin, who is fourth in NHL history with 749 goals and chasing Wayne Gretzky's League record of 894 goals, is usually an annual highlight for the ASHA players from the Washington area. But having the support of Ovechkin and the Capitals has been equally important for ASHA, which has grown to more than 100 programs nationally.
"The alumni are a big piece of it, too. Having Bondra here is very big today," O'Brien said. "We love the support Alex gives. You can't find a bigger name in the sport right now. He's the one scoring all the goals. The guy is on the chase for the goals and these guys are achieving their goals, so it's such a great synergy between the two."
When the Capitals were unable to host an ASHA event last season because of the pandemic, they helped the organization launch an esports program last spring that raised $70,000 for special hockey teams across the U.S.
"We had kids from Northern California to Florida playing with each other and engaging," O'Brien said. "They would be playing. and we would have Zooms set up. Caps Gaming was fantastic. … What it really did was give everybody an opportunity to continually interact."
But for the ASHA players, nothing tops the engagement of skating together.
"I always love seeing my fellow special hockey players," said Sean Steen, a 17-year-old player on the Cool Cats. "We go to tournaments together and all that kind of stuff, and it's really fun seeing some new people and seeing some old people,"
Seeing how much the ASHA players enjoyed the clinic also made it rewarding for those running it.
"I haven't been on the ice for the last couple of years, so I was looking forward to this and it was a great group here today," said Bondra. "The kids are eager to learn and for those kids it's special to be hockey players. They can learn the game and just have fun on the ice. That's what we tried to accomplish today, and I think we did."