Teaming up for autism awareness

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The Okotoks Oilers sported a new look to usher in a new partnership.

Okotoks teamed up with the Autism Aspergers Friendship Society (AAFS) of Calgary to sport special edition jerseys for Autism Awareness Weekend in its two-game homestand versus Whitecourt and Sherwood Park.

“Not only do we want to raise awareness within Okotoks and our community, but I think it helps us as well,” said Oilers associate coach and director of sponsorship Kyle Schussler. “From my standpoint, a lot of the players’ standpoint we have a lot of learning and there is a lot of education on that side too.

“If we can help out and be involved it’s great for the guys moving forward and there is a lot they can take from it.”

The spiffy jerseys prominently featured the blue puzzle piece – a symbol that emblemizes the complexities of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Through the production and promotion of the jerseys the Oilers raised $1200 for autism awareness.

“We focused everything around that blue puzzle piece because that’s obviously a big component for them,” Schussler said. “We wanted to stick with our colours as much as we could, but then incorporate enough so that there was a variation and could show that awareness side of everything.

“We pre-sold the jerseys, opened them up to the AAFS families first so they had first crack at them. They’re limited edition, we’re not making any more of them and we wanted to make sure they had that opportunity.”

The jerseys were passed on from the Oilers to members of the AAFS on Feb. 6 as they continue to build a passion for hockey.

The AAFS Calgary chapter began a ball hockey program for its members last spring with the goal of showing membership there is more to hockey than the NHL.

The AAFS provides respite care for children, youth and adults on the autism spectrum. The society reached out to teams seeking game-worn jerseys with over 100 now involved around the world. The Oilers were one of the first teams to get involved with the initiative.

“Our activities, we want our members to experience things the way they need to and then navigate,” said Scott Godfrey with AAFS Calgary. “Sometimes with autism, that social anxiety and challenge in navigation it can take time to learn how to navigate some situations.

“I wanted our members to know more about hockey and the community, I wanted there to be a learning component to ball hockey and didn’t want it to be limited to the NHL.”

On top of the special edition jerseys, members of AAFS Calgary had an opportunity to stand on the players’ bench prior to puck-drop as well as take part in the second intermission shootout.

Both opportunities allowed members to create new opportunities for growth, Godfrey said.

“Some of those guys, being in that big of a crowd could cause huge anxieties, going out of town or staying overnight somewhere is such a change that it’s difficult for them to navigate that,” he said. “Guys standing up and going out on the ice to shoot a puck, now they’re going ‘I’ll try, I want to do that.’

“It creates a new comfort new zone and shows this amazing courage they have. None of this is therapeutic, it’s social, it’s recreational.”

Schussler and his wife run a small non-profit, the Kokua Try-Sport Canada, which fosters a sports camp run by high-level athletes for the financially disenfranchised. Through the non-profit they connected with the AAFS.

“Through my position with the Oilers we thought there was a really good opportunity to raise awareness with the stature in the community,” Schussler said. “Eventually we were able to make everything come to fruition with the jersey design with league support and the opposing teams were very supportive of our initiative.”

The AJHL membership as a whole has been hugely supportive.

Godfrey estimated 13 or 14 teams in the provincial league have become involved with AAFS.

“Our members have spearheaded this, our members are following stats, they’re the ones taking an interest in things,” Godfrey said. “For some of these guys it’s not just a jersey, it’s a chance to show pride in AAFS, it’s an opportunity to show other communities how amazing they are and give an insight into things.

“There was an idea, it was ball hockey and the purity, our members ran with it, came up with ideas. At first they were amazed the Oilers would want to be involved, then they were proud of it and then they owned it. You can’t underestimate the fact they were owning it, that they earned that right to be recognized.”

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