Individuals with special needs participate in hockey series

Ryan Spoehr, Clarion Editor in Chief

Hockey is a sport that is often known as much for fisticuffs as the competition between the athletes.

However, that was not what it was about March 17 at Madison’s first ever Special Needs Invitational Hockey Festival, an event hosted by the Madison Timberwolves, Madison’s first special needs hockey team. The event was meant to allow individuals with special needs to have fun.

“It’s nice to see them play so well and feel good about what they are doing and get excited about it,” said Hal Bennett, Timberwolves coach.

In addition to the Timberwolves, there were two teams representing Minnesota, two teams representing Wisconsin, one from St. Louis and another from Chicago.

The weekend featured three games with the Timberwolves and sled hockey contests featuring other special needs players. Sled hockey functions like a normal hockey game, but players propel themselves on sleds with the assistance of another player. The sled hockey featured the Wisconsin Warriors, a special needs sled hockey team playing an all-star game against players from around the state.

The Timberwolves laced up the skates for the first time in 2008. Two years later, they played their first game after registering with USA Hockey. Now, two years after their first game, they hosted the hockey festival at the Madison Ice Arena.

The team started after Hal and Gaylene Bennett relocated to Madison from St. Louis. Their son Elliot has autism and was a hockey fan throughout childhood. After they took Elliot to see a friend play hockey at Madison West High School, Elliot’s love of the game compelled Hal and Gaylene to start a team.

The Bennetts finally made an agreement to bring the team to fruition with Gary Shuchuk, former executive director of the Madison Ice Arena and Hartmeyer Ice Arena and current assistant UW Men’s Hockey coach. Through sponsors, they were able to get free ice time at the ice arena for practice and then eventually games.

“I got more involved and we thought why not start hosting these festivals because we have a lot of kids involved in this and this would just help the program grow,” said Andrea Chaffee, business and marketing director for Madison Ice Inc. “We like to think there are no boundaries in hockey.”

With this being the first of its kind in the state, it gives the people on the team a chance to play hockey, an opportunity they probably wouldn’t have if not for the Timberwolves.

“I think it’s a great experience,” said Alex Busse, Timberwolves defenseman.

With four years of ice time and two years as a part of USA Hockey, it does not appear like this team is going away anytime soon.

“What’s really kept it going is the passion and enthusiasm of the kids playing it,” Hal Bennett said. “And then there have been very supportive other parents helping out with coaching.”

For more information regarding the team, go to