The air inside Valley Children’s Ice Center of Bakersfield is frigid and piercing, amplifying the sounds bouncing off the venue’s walls. On the north end of the rink, skates and sticks scrape and clank against the frozen surface as hockey players skate in circles.

That is until a commanding voice cuts through the cold.

“Andy’s coming!”

Immediately, bodies hit the ice, motionless and silent.

Scott Hay can’t help but smile as he skates past his “lifeless” players recreating the iconic scene from the movie “Toy Story.”

This is his favorite drill.

Among those playing dead are kids as young as 8 and adults in their late 20s who make up the Bakersfield Oilers roster, the latest entry in the hockey programs offered by the Ice Center made possible with the help of the American Special Hockey Association and funding courtesy of Valley Children’s.

The program takes a literal approach to the National Hockey League’s “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative by teaching the game of hockey to athletes with special needs free of charge.

The first practice took place in October 2018 with about four kids on the ice and has grown to a dozen participants.

“There’s so much about the game – the speed, the activity, playing it, watching it, cheering it on,” said Hay, the team’s coach and former Bakersfield Condors player. “It’s a good, strong hockey community.”

Among the participants of the first practice were Katheryn Vodopija and her 8-year-old son Eli.

Katheryn learned about the program through Eli’s special-needs class at Almondale Elementary School and thought it was too good to be true – the flyer telling parents and kids to “just show up, we’re going to teach them to play hockey” at no cost.

They decided to give it a shot anyway and Eli, who never really had an interest in organized sports, loved it.

“It’s been a dream,” she said.

Matthew Castellano and his twin 9-year-olds Kaine and Beau were also there on the first day, where Kaine and Hay formed an instant connection.

“They’ve tried baseball. Beau plays soccer. Kaine has tried different sports but they’ve never really stuck,” Matthew said. “This is actually the first sport he’s really enjoyed and he wants to come back so it’s really cool that they’re doing it.”

The team consists of athletes with physical disabilities as well. Sharing the ice with Eli, Kaine and Beau is 28-year-old Charlie Alvary IV.

Alvary was paralyzed from the bellybutton down after he was struck by a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting when he was 4 years old. But that hasn’t prevented him from playing a variety of sports, like hockey, basketball and tennis – even traveling all over the country to compete.

“Once I found sports, I was determined to do different things and not just be a bum in a chair,” he said. “The team brings me back. The camaraderie keeps me going. It’s what I love to do.”

The team is currently gearing up for the Special Needs Athletes & Peers Hockey Festival April 27-28 in Valencia, which will strengthen the bond between players, coaches and parents even further and put the athletes’ skills to the test.

“The effort they put in is unbelievable,” Hay said. “We deal with a lot of great kids and a lot of great hockey adults but this group specifically is the best hour of the week for all-around general hockey experience. It gives me that boost to go through next week and look forward to them.”

Parents benefit from the experience as well as they have seen noticeable improvements in their kids’ confidence, self-esteem and mood while giving them the opportunity to interact with teammates of different ages and backgrounds.

“I think (Eli) does like being with the older guys,” Katherine said. “It seems like he’s looking up to them. I think it’s giving him a sense of pride and accomplishment that he’s never really experienced before. He puts an hour on the ice and then he comes home and it’s like he learned something new, he did something different and when he scores a goal, the rest of the day is a good day.” 

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