Train Keeps A-Rollin’

The Gateway Locomotive Special Hockey Program Shows No Signs Of Slowing Down

Every player, coach and parent associated with the Gateway Locomotives is made to feel like a part of an extended hockey family.Every player, coach and parent associated with the Gateway Locomotives is made to feel like a part of an extended hockey family.

 

Tucked away in Jim Hermann’s treasure trove of hockey memories are two hand-written letters. Each was written by a parent whose son found a home inside the Gateway Locomotive’s locker room, where players are not judged by their disabilities but welcomed as part of a fraternity bound by a common love of hockey.

One was written by Jill Presson, who recalled the magical day she brought her son, Jeffrey, to the Brentwood Ice Rink for the first time. They were quickly greeted by a veteran player who couldn’t wait to tell them about all the fun they would soon have on the ice.

For a parent of a young child battling a life-threatening illness, being welcomed as a member of a team was a foreign feeling after years of being treated as an outsider.

“Have you ever known what it’s like to be ‘picked’ last, if even picked at all for the Saturday neighborhood softball game? Or, even worse yet, to be the parent of a child whose face is pressed against the glass in the door watching all of the other neighborhood children playing?” Presson wrote. “The Locomotives eased that pain by providing a sense of belonging.”

Erin Ott knew that feeling of isolation and desperation all too well. Her son Brian found brief respite from the daily struggle of dealing with inoperable brain cancer thanks to his involvement with the game as well.

“He gets very little joy in his life these days, but hockey has made him thrive for life again,” Ott expressed in her thank-you letter. “It has brought out the best in him that has carried over into other areas of his life.”

These letters mean more to Hermann than any championship trophy because they signify the importance the Locomotives have made in the lives of so many families in the St. Louis area.

As the program wraps up its 20th anniversary celebration, Hermann measures success not by wins and losses, but in more simple terms: the smile on a child’s face; a player mastering a new skill; a goal celebration where both teams join in; or a simple letter from an appreciative parent.

“When they score a goal, to see how excited they are, the smile on their face is what it’s all about,” says Hermann, who spends his Sunday afternoons coaching 40 players who range in age from 6 to 47. “Every coach should experience the things that I have over the last 20 years.”

The Locomotives are about more than just hockey. It’s about using the game to open up new doors for individuals who deal with disabilities ranging from Autism to Down syndrome.

“This is a program where we accept the kids for who they are, not for who somebody thinks they should be,” says Hermann, who works as an off-ice official at Blues home games. “They’ve been discriminated against most of their lives. We don’t see disability, we see what they can do rather than what they can’t do.”

Founded in 1993 by Tony Sansone, Jr., who modeled the Locomotives after a program in Toronto, the organization has enjoyed support from the St. Louis hockey community dating back to when Blues tough guy Kelly Chase donated the profits from his hockey schools to pay for ice time at the Blues practice facility.

In the early years the Locomotives had to make a five-hour drive to the Windy City to play the Chicago Tomahawks or head west to take on the Colorado Golden Eagles. But today, thanks to the efforts of groups like USA Hockey and the American Special Hockey Association, special hockey’s ranks have grown to 50 clubs in 30 states made up of close to 2,000 athletes.

“We don’t see disability, we see what they can do rather than what they can’t do.”

Emphasis has always been on team play and participation. No player is ever turned away, regardless of age or ability. And regardless of their disability, many of these players have the same dreams and aspirations as any kid who laces up a pair of skates.

“They want to be in the NHL some day,” Hermann says. “Our goalie thinks the Blues are going to call him, and the way he plays he may be right.”

There isn’t a day that passes by that Hermann doesn’t consider himself the luckiest man in St. Louis hockey. And if there ever comes a day when his interest wanes, he can reach for a letter from Erin Ott or Jill Presson and know that he is making a difference in the lives of these players and their families, because the Gateway Locomotives are a family bound together by their love of the game, and for each other.

“For me, it’s the issue of if I wouldn’t have done it, who would have?” asks Hermann.
“I felt the calling to be there for these kids. To be honest with you, I’ve gotten more out of this than I have ever put in. It will always be that way.”

Issue: 
2015-01

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