A passion to give back

Sparta man starts hockey team for disabled kids and it's taking off

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  • Photos provided The Monarchs ice hockey team is about more than hockey. Kids with special needs learn the value of comraderie, teamwork and they have lots of fun.

  • Six-year-old Joey has gotten many benefits from being part of the Monarchs ice hockey team.

"You can have the crummiest day and come out and see these kids and they're so happy — it changes your life and I feel very lucky to know these families."
Brad Meyers, founder of Monarchs hockey team for disabled kids


He doesn’t play hockey and describes himself as “a terrible skater,” but you’ll often find him at the Skylands Ice World rink. Why? His own kids play hockey, but his passion is helping special needs kids enjoy a sport that might otherwise be unavailable to them.

Reassessing lifeSparta resident Brad Meyers said he turned 40 and it was a defining moment for him. He asked himself what he was going to do with his life. Grateful for what he had, he wanted to give back and decided to start a special needs ice hockey program for kids with physical and developmental challenges. The group would become known as the Monarchs, and be open to kids of all ages.

Meyers talked to others in the hockey world and management at Skylands Ice World to find out what support was out there. Skylands was happy to help launch the program.

He then brought on two adult coaches, Joe Chromcik and Mark Fleksher, who work with travel teams and donate their time.

Meyers recruited local high school hockey players, many from Vernon, to help teach. His vision turned into a learn-to-skate program and they hope eventually to add hockey, speed skating and sledding on ice. A year ago, they joined with Special Olympics as a training partner.

Meyers reached out to USA Disabled Hockey and they loaned the Monarchs 20 ice sleds. Myers said it looks like a bucket and the kids sit in it and get strapped in and pushed around on the ice. “It’s unbelievable what these guys can do,” he said. He hopes to launch a sled hockey program in the spring. There is a fee of $100 for 10 weeks, $10 a week, to join the Monarchs program.

Meyers’ family is involved too.

Meyers and his wife, Christina, have a son, Jonathan, 14, who has skated since he was four and plays for the Skylands Kings Travel team and for Pope John’s junior varsity hockey team, and a daughter, Graziella, 11, who also plays hockey for the Skylands Kings and for Sparta Middle School. Both help out with the Monarchs team.

The team members are provided with hockey outfits, equipment, skates and instruction. Even though they’re just learning to skate at this point, hockey outfits are for safety. Much of the clothing and equipment have been donated by players who have outgrown them. The team can always use more.

Often the Monarchs share the rink for free with Skylands’ Head Start hockey program; at other times, the Monarchs pay a reduced fee. Skylands provides rental skates and helmets. The store at Skylands, though not affiliated with the rink, will also provide equipment at a reduced rate.

More than skatingThe program helps kids in so many ways. One team member’s teacher commented that he listened better and was better behaved.

“It’s given him a lot of confidence,” said Diane Vaspory of West Milford, a parent whose 6-year-old son, Joey, participates in the Monarchs. “He loves the coaches; they’re very understanding. The coaches are able to set boundaries, too. He went in not knowing how to skate and in six weeks they had him skating.” Joey has gotten more social, too.

Meyers is trying to also teach his children the importance of giving back.

“I tell my kids we’re not able to give a lot of money, but we can give time,” said Meyers. “I want my kids to understand sometimes you do things because you can, not because you have to. Give back what you can — it doesn’t have to be money. Now we have a chance to give these kids the opportunity; they’re so happy to be doing it.

Currently, there are 15 kids on the Monarchs team, ranging in age from 3 to 15. They come from Sussex and Passaic counties, including Highland Lakes, West Milford, Andover, Augusta, Hamburg, Paterson and Pompton Lakes. Kids from all towns are welcome.

“Hockey’s not cheap; these other kids might not have the opportunity. Someone recently gave a $10,000 donation,” a grateful Myers said. They’re happy to get donations of equipment and money to help grow the program, which is open to kids of all ages and from neighboring counties, as well.

Thanksgiving weekend they held the 2nd annual Monarchs Invitational Fundraiser. Nine teams attended from New Jersey, Long Island and Pennsylvania. The group also has a connection to the New Jersey Devils and sometimes gets tickets.

Making an impressionMatt Bennett of Vernon is a 17-year-old coach who volunteers his time with the Monarchs.

“When I started it last year, it seemed like a good opportunity to help kids with mental and physical disabilities,” said Matt, “an opportunity to teach them (to skate and play hockey.) For me, it just seems like as an athlete in the community, it’s my role to give back and teach the younger kids that look up to us. It’s definitely teaching me a lot about responsibility.”

And there are some big rewards.

“When everybody learns to skate on their own you can just see the joy on their faces,” said Matt. “I’m going to try to set up a program like it when I go to college.”

Unanticipated rewards“You can have the crummiest day and come out and see these kids and they’re so happy — it changes your life and I feel very lucky to know these families,” Myers said.

The Monarchs program is a non-profit initiative that enables special needs kids to participate in organized youth sports programs with a focus on teamwork, sportsmanship, and fair play through scholarships, access to facilities and equipment, player coaching and development and mentoring.

The Monarchs get together Monday nights from 6 to 7 p.m. at Skylands Ice World, 2765 Route 23 in Stockholm. Players are encouraged to arrive early to suit up — with help.

Kids can come and try a free session with the Monarchs and see how they like it.

For more information, contact brad@monarchs.us or go to www.monarchs.us.

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