It’s 6 a.m. on a chilly Saturday. While most of us are sleeping, the Bryants hit the road and make their way from Chilliwack to North Surrey Arena.
It’s 12-year-old Mitchell Bryant’s favourite time of the week.
Mitchell is in his second year for the Surrey Stingrays adaptive hockey team, a program for kids with autism.
His dad, Gary Bryant, says Mitchell is ecstatic to have an opportunity to play the sport he loves.
“For years, we knew that our son wanted to play hockey,” said Gary. “It’s been a dream of his, something that he’s always wanted to do.”
Because Mitchell had autism, Gary said he knew minor hockey wasn’t a great option for his son.
“Although he was probably capable of playing, we knew minor hockey would eat him alive,” said Gary.
“He would probably end up hating something that he loved so much.”
The Bryants discovered the Stingrays, which is a part of the Canucks Autism Network (CAN). Paolo and Clara Aquilini founded the program 10 years ago to provide opportunities for kids with autism who are between the ages of 9-18.
Hockey programs under CAN started five years ago, with the inception of the Vancouver Orcas. The Surrey Stingrays came into existence in 2015.
The season for the Stingrays kicks off in mid-October, where coaches from the Canucks Autism Network teach them on-ice skills.
There is also a group of volunteers that make their way to the rink every Saturday morning to help these kids enhance their skills.
Gary says the selflessness and hard work of these volunteers have fuelled his son’s passion for the game of hockey.
“He’s trying to figure out how to tell his coach how he’s going to make it to practice on Saturday once he makes the NHL,” he said. “I don’t know what else to say other than that my son is living his dream.”
John Carinha is the Stingrays’ manager. His 13-year-old son Brandon also plays on the team.
“When he first stepped onto the ice, he walked like a penguin for the first month,” John said. “He still has room to grow but he’s very much involved with the team. He’s grown to the point where he refers to himself as a hockey player.”
He added the kids grow on many levels.
“For these kids, during their Monday to Fridays they are in some kind of home-based therapy. These kids typically never get a social break.”
But, he adds, when they get on the ice, they’re able to feel like just another kid lacing up their skates on a Saturday morning.
“The adaptive piece is almost invisible,” John said. “The energy in the room is unlike something that’s ever been seen.”
The Now-Leader featured Brandon and the team in 2016, towards the end of their first year as an organization. Many of the players have stuck around for all three seasons.
“There’s been very minimal turnover,” John said. “Now after three years, there’s a very connected family unit.
“The on-ice product speaks for itself, and the off-ice product has one of the largest rewards for me personally,” he added. “The bonds and friendships that we’ve created is massive.”