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Mission Special Edition program going strong in Year 2 By Greg Ball


little more than a year ago, when the Mission Special Edition program was first getting off the ground, director Brandi Goltz and head coach Rod Rihela had no idea what to expect. Goltz had spent years thinking about starting a hockey program for kids with special needs, and after many months planning, still had no idea what the response would be. Now the program is well into its second season, and it couldn’t be going any better. Mission Special Edition has approximately 25 players on its roster, ranging in age from 6-16, with kids of all skill levels. Each Monday, players from Mission AZ’s Bantam and Midget teams – along with Rihela and other coaches from Mission’s other teams – work with the special needs players in 30-minute sessions that focus on everything from the basics to advanced skills. “Since we’ve been at this more than a year, our kids from the Mission program are starting to develop relationships with the special needs players, and that’s really cool to see,” said Jeremy Goltz, Mission’s director of hockey operations. “They’re even more part of our family than they were last year. They’re coming to our games, holiday parties and other events, and they know our kids by name. It’s really cool to see how it has taken off.” Some kids spend most of their time on the ice in

chairs, and others are just getting their feet under them learning to skate, but all the players get a boost of confidence and a sense of belonging by being able to participate in a sport that previously hadn’t been accessible to them. “It has been so cool to see the progression these kids

have experienced,” Goltz said. “Kids who started in chairs a year ago are starting to stand up on their skates. They’re all taking big steps and making great progress.” Goltz said he understands the importance of giving back and helping people of different abilities, and he knows how important it is to instill those same values in kids at the high-school age. Along with teaching the special needs players skating and stick-handling skills, Mission’s Bantam and Midget players are learning

compassion and empathy while experiencing the joy of helping others. He said the kids who serve as mentors often get as much out of the experience as the special needs players, and he has beamed with pride as he has witnessed the kids from each group developing true friendships. Goltz credits his wife, Brandi, and Rihela for putting in the time and effort to make this program so impactful for so many kids. “It’s Brandi’s passion, and she’s put in the legwork and the hours to get it going – it’s her passion,” Goltz said. “Rod has done a terrific job as well, and the two of them have really gotten to know the kids and their families on a personal level.” Goltz said the experiences that the special needs players get from participating in hockey go far beyond the hockey skills they are learning. He’s proud of the fact that so many people from within the Mission program have jumped on board with the idea and supported what it’s all about. After all, Mission players and coaches will tell you their program is one big family. “We wanted to give these kids a chance to play hockey,” Goltz explained. “For them to get out there and exercise, and to go through the process of getting dressed in their gear, it gives them a sense of inclusion that they may not get elsewhere. We’ve heard plenty of stories about kids working on their skills at home. They feel like hockey players, and to us, that’s very important.”

MISSION STATEMENT Do young hockey players still have a team-first mindset? This column originally ran in the Dec. 2017 issue of Arizona Rubber Magazine.



recently saw an article in USA Hockey Magazine that got me thinking about how we are losing sight of the purity and reasons why

so many play this great game. It was an article that talked about how 14- and 16-year-old kids can promote themselves to get on the USA Hockey Development Camp radar. I see articles like this contributing to the lack of focus on hockey as a team game, and more and more parents and players are focused on the wrong things and what this sport is truly about. I have played, coached and currently scout for college hockey and junior programs, and can tell you the No. 1 thing coaches are looking for are good, coachable kids who will be an asset to the college or junior program. They want kids who un-

derstand the humble nature of being a piece to a bigger puzzle. They look for kids who are coachable, and are willing to learn and take on roles in order to make teams and players around them more successful. Kids should have individual goals and aspirations beyond youth hockey, but it can’t come at the expense of their team goals and other teammates’ aspirations to be successful. In the last few years, with all the marketing, showcases and money-making adventures, hockey is becoming a breeding ground for individual focus rather than the intended focus of the team first. Players jump jersey to jersey, leave town early, and could care less about team success. It has more and more become about who can climb the ladder and do it no matter what the expense may be. I managed to do some great things in the game of hockey, and can tell you there wasn’t a day in that process where I focused on my individual

agenda. Team success was always a priority, and through that mindset, individuals would be recognized individually. This is a battle I fight every day, not only with my older kids, but now younger kids who are being pushed with the promise of “being seen” or as players that you have to “market.” It is destroying the essence of the game and in reality, is creating less and less of what coaches are truly looking for – players who are coachable, humble and are willing to be a small piece of a bigger puzzle. I had the opportunity to go to Tucson on a recent weekend and hang out with some of my teammates from my college playing days. We had great teams back then and it was a reminder to all of us how special we were as we focused on a common goal and common purpose. Youth hockey should be the very definition of what “putting the team first” is all about and all the lessons that come with that process. It should be magical, and about the common jersey. These days, sadly, I see a change as the name on the back is indeed more important than the name on the front.

Jeremy Goltz is the director of hockey operations for Mission Arizona.


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