There are hockey moms, and then there is Randi Miller-Gol.
Miller-Gol plays hockey. She and her son, Kazim, would watch games together. It seemed to make sense for Miller-Gol to find a way to get her son involved in the sport they both loved.
Except Kazim, 8, was diagnosed non-verbal autism and epilepsy, making it far more difficult to find a hockey team for him to join.
“The only opportunity I could find was in Northern Virginia,” Miller-Gol said. “Of course, we were welcome to join their team, but it was too far of a drive. So, I put it out there, that I was interested in starting an adaptive ice hockey team, if there wasn’t one already that I didn’t know about.”
Someone sent a screenshot of that post to the league director of the American Special Hockey Association, which is dedicated to people with disabilities who want to play hockey. The association eventually got in touch with Miller-Gol to say, “‘Yeah, you can start a team. You need a name and a logo and just a whole lot of ambition to get it up and running,’” Miller-Gol recalled.
Within six weeks of that phone call in March 2021, the Richmond Retrievers became the 100th team in the ASHA league at the team’s founding in June 2021. There are now 105 teams, according to Miller-Gol.
Miller-Gol’s son currently plays hockey on a team with about 20 other kids and young adults who have special needs. Their disabilities range from being vision-impaired, having autism, epilepsy and cerebral palsy.
“We’re totally all abilities on our team. Any ability at all,” Miller-Gol said. “Regardless, we try to find a way. If they want to be on the team, we try to find a way to adapt to their needs.”
The Retrievers have spent the past two years meeting their athletes at their levels and developing the fundamental basics of playing ice hockey. The primary goal is teaching everyone how to skate.
Of course, there are still players who need assistance with skating. For those athletes, there are adaptive ice supports, consisting of ice gliders or stacked buckets to help maintain balance. The devices, some made with PVC piping, allow the players to stand up and glide across the ice, sometimes with a team volunteer standing behind them.
“I think a key element to our program is definitely our volunteers,” Miller-Gol said. “That’s what makes us really unique, is that we have that one-on-one coaching per athlete when they’re on the ice. That one-on-one is so important to help the athletes access the practices, the routines, the structures, the drills, skating drills, scrimmages. They have to want to be out there and do it, obviously, but it’s really that one-on-one support that helps them do that.
“So, I’d say that the volunteers are incredibly important. Above all else. Above money, above ice, our volunteers would be our biggest need right now.”
The team volunteers come from varying backgrounds. Some are parents of a team member; some are community members who play hockey in the local adult leagues; others may have a family member or loved one with special needs. The participants range from 5 years old to young adults who come all over the Richmond area.
“Everybody has their own reason why they want to be a part of our community, and they’re all really heartfelt,” Miller-Gol said.
The Richmond Generals and Washington Little Capitals youth hockey teams also volunteer to help the Retrievers players.
“Those kids have been amazing,” Miller-Gol said. “I’d say half of our volunteer base is from the Richmond Generals. They just get right out there and our players just feel incredibly accepted by them, because they’re all around the same age. It makes them feel so good helping our team.”
“Resources for Independent Living is our biggest sponsor this year,” Miller-Gol said. “They sponsored ice time every month for the year. So did Capital Ale House, our two biggest sponsors right there. Between them two alone, our families don’t have to pay a dime to play hockey this year.”
The families of players did not have to pay registration fees this year to skate. But they also do not have to pay for equipment and gear. Brand new hockey gear is not cheap; a whole new set of helmets, pads, guards and skates can run up to $1,500.
“With our equipment too, another unique thing about our team, is that we provide equipment,” Miller-Gol said. “When you join our team, we’re gearing you up. We’re not asking you to go out and buy equipment, because hockey is so expensive, especially to the families in our community who are already struggling with additional expenses that come with having disabilities and special needs.”
The team mostly relies on donations of used equipment from the local hockey community; however, one of the things Miller-Gol has to buy new, or nearly new, new are helmets, because helmets have expiration dates since impact-absorbing lining degrades over time.
Other things on which Miller-Gol may spend team funds include jerseys, hockey socks and other equipment that is not donated. They also host an annual team potluck at Journey of Hope 4 Autism. The outing is designed to give the team a chance to bond off the ice and build friendships, according to Miller-Gol.
In order to help raise more funding for the team’s “wish board,” SkateNation Plus in Glen Allen — the Retrievers home rink — hosted the team’s first annual charity exhibition game.
The event consisted of two teams — both made up of Retrievers volunteers — playing against each other. There was a silent auction with items donated by sponsors, a raffle, a bake sale, and merchandise available for purchase. One hundred percent of the proceeds, including the admission, went straight to the Retrievers. According to Miller-Gol, the event raised over $6,000 and “is enough to fund our season twice over,” Miller-Gol said.
The 2023-24 Retrievers team members were introduced during the first intermission of the exhibition game. The players were greeted with an uproarious standing ovation while they skated a few laps around the rink.
One of the big items Miller-Gol has on the “wish board” is a sufficient amount of sponsorship money to enable the Retrievers to start traveling to play other teams in the ASHA league. She also wants the team to be able to take part in some of the ASHA league events, such as traveling to New York where the league hosts its version of the National Hockey League’s Winter Classic, playing on an outdoor rink.
Looking towards the future, Miller-Gol wants to see the team continue to grow, not just in number of players, but also in the amount of volunteers.
“I know that only a small percentage of the community knows about us,” Miller-Gol said. “So, as we grow and as the word gets out, I’m sure there’s other kids, well not even kids, because our team goes five years and up, so you can be an adult as well. Just getting the word out more and letting people know that this is an option in the community that we’re still welcoming players and volunteers.”
For the parents who are apprehensive about letting their special needs child try ice skating, Miller-Gol encourages them to come out to a practice first to observe. Equipment is provided and they are fully geared up “so it’s like you’re bubble wrapped.” There are also the one-on-one volunteers along with the adaptive ice supports to help kids learn to skate.
“We have actually also had concerns with families whose kids would like to do this, but they don’t feel like they’re experienced enough, they can’t skate well,” Miller-Gol said. ”We can’t focus on what they can’t do, we’re just going to focus on what they can do, and we don’t know what they can do until they get out there. A lot parents have been very surprised, where some kids that have never been on the ice before in their life just took off with it, like they were born to do it. We can never ever say our kid can’t do something.”
Miller-Gol has been overwhelmed with the community support the team has received.
“When I say the whole community comes together to make sure these kids get on the ice, it’s really the whole community,” Miller-Gol said. “Everything we can do. It just blows my mind how awesome that is. I’ve never seen anything like it. The hockey community is the best community ever.”
As a former player, Miller-Gol was aware of what the sport of hockey was able to provide for Richmond’s special needs children. To see the team grow from just an idea to a full-fledged team through the support from sponsors, the hockey community, the special needs community and the volunteers has been inspiring.
“It builds confidence and friendships, so even if it just was a social activity where kids could get together, get on the ice and just enjoy themselves through the sport, through the game, even if it didn’t look like hockey at all, even if it just looked like what their interpretation of hockey would be, that was also fine,” Miller-Gol said. “For some players, it has grown into functional hockey, and for some players it still remains very much a social club, and both is okay. When our athletes are on the ice, they don’t want to stand out for their disabilities. When they go on the ice, they’re hockey players.”
Those interested in volunteering, joining or supporting the team in any way can contact Randi Miller-Gol at firstname.lastname@example.org and find more information at richmondretrievers.wordpress.com.
On August 10, 2023,