Local All-Around Athlete Loves Life With Hockey Stars

Little Egg Harbor Man Competes in Special Needs League
By DAVID BIGGY | Feb 07, 2018
Photo by: David Biggy Brick Stars player Michael Koval (29) crashes the net looking for a garbage goal during the Challenger Winter Classic at Avon Pond ice rink on Feb. 4.

Michael Koval had played floor hockey for 20 years, so making the transition to ice wasn’t too difficult.

“He absolutely loves hockey, but he was a little leery about getting on ice skates,” said Michael’s mother, Charlotte, after her son and 20 other Stars’ players faced off against the USA Warriors in the 7th annual Challenger Winter Classic at Avon Pond ice rink on Feb. 4. “At first, it was, ‘I’m not going out there.’ Then Dina Crepaldi came over and encouraged him to give it a try. Now, he loves it.”

After competing in various sports – floor hockey, golf, bowling, bocce, among others – with Special Olympics New Jersey for decades, Koval first joined the Brick Stars five years ago and instantly became “the old man” in the program geared toward special needs individuals.

“When he first joined us, we gave him the PVC-pipe walker to help get him acclimated to skating on ice,” said Stars co-founder Alex DePalma. “But it wasn’t too long before we took it from him and he was skating on his own. But he fit right in with all the younger kids, and he has a lot of fun with them. They all get along great. They call him ‘the old man’ but he takes it all in stride.”

In a program littered with players 25 and younger, the 41-year-old Little Egg Harbor resident indeed is one of the elders of the group. But Sunday’s Classic wasn’t about who was older or younger, but simply about being teammates and winning the game.

“Hockey’s good,” said Michael, who had three shots on goal but each time was thwarted by Warriors goaltender Johnny Laursen, an Army veteran. “My team is good this year. We have good players and they do a great job. Everybody plays together.”

Playing a forward position on the Stars’ third line, Koval definitely did his job against the Warriors, parking himself in the slot multiple times either to create screens on Laursen or wrangle rebounds in an attempt for the old garbage goal. Just a half-minute into his first shift, Koval got a shot off from the low slot but Laursen got a glove on it to knock it away.

Ultimately, Koval’s teammates picked him up and scored enough goals to win the game by a few, at least – there’s no scoreboard at Avon Pond, so it was difficult to keep track of all the goals scored.

But while the goals matter only to the players on the ice, the overall point of the Stars’ program is to give every young man or woman a chance to be a part of the fun that is playing ice hockey. The Stars’ travel team, which is sanctioned by USA Special Hockey, soon will be heading to Chicago in April to compete in the National Disabled Hockey Festival.

“This is a great program, a first-class organization,” said Mike Koval, Michael’s father, who had coached Special Olympics floor hockey teams for 25 years. “The Stars do everything right and really do a great job of making every player feel like they belong. For Mike, it’s great for the socialization as well as for playing the sport. He comes home with aches and pains, but he gets out to every practice and game, and he doesn’t need any extra motivation to do it. He loves it.”

And every individual with any special need can love it, too, said Charlotte Koval.

“They learn how to skate and play some hockey, but it’s more about the friendships and being around each other,” she said. “It’s an ideal program for kids will all different needs. It doesn’t matter how old you are or what your need is. The organization welcomes everybody, because hockey is for everybody. This is a big family.”

DePalma said it is love that keeps the program going. The volunteers get as much out of it as do the players.

“There’s a sense of belonging with our program,” he said. “It gives these kids the same things other hockey players have. There’s no difference. These kids love hockey. They are competitive, and they love competing together as a team.

“And that love for hockey, and each other, goes straight to all our volunteers as well. It takes a small village to run this organization and everybody who volunteers loves it. And the more kids help out, that’s the more they learn from each other.”

The Brick Stars program typically operates Sunday mornings from 8 to 9:45 a.m., September through February, out of the Ocean Ice Palace. For those interested in participating, either as a player or volunteer, visit the Stars’ website at brickstarshockey.webs.com, or email DePalma (alexdepalma@comcast.net) or program manager Dina Crepaldi (dinac01@aol.com).

biggy@thesandpaper.net

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