When Kim Willard first heard about the Baltimore Area Special Hockey program 12 years ago, she wasn’t sure if her then 11-year-old daughter, Grace, would want to participate. Grace, who has Down syndrome, had never been on the ice before, but Willard registered Grace and her brother, Andrew, for the program anyway.
To her surprise, Grace enjoyed skating. No, she didn’t step into the rink and become Wayne Gretzky, but she practiced every weekend and continued to improve. “It was hard at first, but now I’m pretty good,” says Grace, now 22.
Since starting the adaptive recreational hockey program for children and adults with developmental disabilities in 2008, BASH team managers Jim and Teresa Zinkhan have grown the Baltimore Saints family to 130 players ranging from age 5 to 39.
Prior to founding BASH, the couple did not have any experience working with people with special needs, but per a friend’s suggestion, they created a hockey program where everyone feels welcome on the ice. With decades of playing time under his belt, Jim took on the role of “Coach Pinky”—known for his neon-pink stick, helmet, and gloves—to show players that there’s nothing wrong with being different.
“There is no guidebook on our kids, you have to see what works for each kid individually,” says Jim, pictured.
With the Reisterstown Sportsplex as its home arena, the BASH program is volunteer-based and divided into four sessions, ranging from beginner skaters to players who scrimmage each other and occasionally area high-school teams.
Along with the usual benefits that come with playing a team sport—regular exercise, a sense of community—BASH players have seen additional results, including increased core strength, muscle tone, and self-esteem. No matter the session, each player proudly sports a burgundy, white, and blue jersey with their name and number stamped on the back.
For Jim and Teresa, the heart of the program lies in the bundled-up parents who watch their children navigate the ice—a skill that some people, including Willard, never thought their child would be able to do.
“It’s our Saturday morning miracle every Saturday,” Willard says.
Now, as a Baltimore Saints player for more than a decade, Grace makes skating look easy. She went from using handmade PVC-pipe walkers to gliding around the rink so quickly that not even the brisk air can perturb her. “I feel much better skating,” Grace says. “I feel proud.”