When he first suited up for a hockey game three months ago, 13-year-old Murray Cote thought it felt weird. It wasn't as simple as strapping on a pair of skates, grabbing a stick and puck and going for it.
Instead, he had to put on all sorts of protective gear helmet, shin guards, elbow pads, shoulder pads, mouth guard and gloves before he could even step on the ice.
"I played soccer a long time ago, and it was way different from soccer because you have to wear all the equipment," Cote said. "I didn't know you had to wear all this stuff."
But soon enough Cote embraced it like soccer. Now he can't get enough of skating and shooting a puck. Many kids just like Cote also enjoy the sport on a regular basis while playing for a special-needs team affiliated with the Rocky Mountain Renegades hockey club.
The Renegades began sponsoring two special-needs teams last fall: a North team made up of players from Davis and Salt Lake counties and a South team drawing players from Utah County. All players are registered with USA Hockey, and coaches are certified through the same governing body.
In addition to a weekly practice, special needs teams play a schedule ranging from 15 to 20 games held at various ice arenas. Opponents are mostly drawn from high school hockey teams along the Wasatch Front.
Special-needs hockey teams are inclusive by nature. Boys and girls are both eligible to participate, and players can range from 5 years old to 50. If they meet qualifications for the Special Olympics, they can participate with the Renegades.
There are no rules in a traditional sense. Players from high school teams usually divide up and team with special needs players during the actual games. Scores are kept but penalties are not called. High school players are not allowed to shoot, but everyone else is given a chance to score a goal.
"The best thing about it is everybody is included," said Magna resident Michelle Petersen, who has a daughter, Jhessi, that plays with the Renegades. "It puts everybody on the same playing field. There's no judgment. You don't have to be anything. You can just be who you are and show up to play."
The special-needs program is one of only a few such teams that have been established in the western United States. Its development has been spearheaded largely by the efforts of team manager Mary Lederman. Lederman, who moved to Utah from Chicago a year ago, wanted to find a special-needs team for her son to play on as he had done back in Illinois.
Lederman thinks the special needs hockey program, given enough community support, has potential to grow and enrich the lives of many local families.
"The coaches and the junior coaches and the volunteers get more pleasure out of this than even our kids," Lederman said. "Currently, there is no waiting list for players, but I have a waiting list for coaches."
For many of the special-needs children who participate, this is the first sport they have ever played. Renegades head coach Don Korth said many struggle early on to pick up the basics of shooting and skating.
After working with them for several weeks, though, Korth who has coached or played hockey for 30 years is genuinely impressed by their growth as players.
He cannot think of anything better than seeing them embrace hockey as they have done."I've had a lot of great things happen to me in hockey, but this is one of the most rewarding things I've done in hockey for quite some time," Korth said.