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North Hills Monthly

Kids with Special Needs Find Confidence with Steel City Icebergs

Oct 01, 2016 02:10PM ● By Clare Heekin Lynch

Photos courtesy of Tom Miller Photography

Sports have the unique ability to provide an experience that serves real life while rewarding drive, teamwork and heart, as well as allowing players to define success at an individual level.

People with developmental disabilities are often reminded of their weaknesses on a daily basis, especially because society encourages competition against others. But when allowed the opportunity to play a sport at their own individual level of ability, people of all ages and physical and mental capabilities are able to take pride in their improvements while engaging with both their coaches and their peers.

Steel City Icebergs is a local nonprofit sports organization that welcomes children and adults of all developmental levels to feel a sense of personal accomplishment and pride in what they do. “Our program teaches children and adults to play ice hockey in an environment adapted to their level of ability,” explained coach and volunteer Mark Nous. 

In a controlled setting, this unique program combines sensory input, coordination, social interaction, self-reliance, concentration, and willingness to adapt to new experiences with a sense of accomplishment and pride. “It’s important to the success of the program to combine positive coaches and volunteers who have fun with the participants while also challenging them to find confidence in themselves,” Nous said. Steel City Icebergs accepts players ages 5 years and up with developmental disabilities including autism, Down syndrome and traumatic brain injury.

Founded in 2008, The Greater Pittsburgh Special Hockey Association (GPSHA) is operated solely by dedicated volunteers. “Our coaching staff is comprised of USA Hockey-registered adult coaches and training professionals who have years of experience,” said founder and President Stephanie Maust. “Our junior staff of youth ice hockey players assists the coaching staff on-ice, and provides an environment for peer interaction to help kids learn and form meaningful relationships.”

While the team runs on the dedication of volunteers, they also depend on donations of all kinds. “We receive equipment donations from the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation and youth organizations around the area, which has been a big help because one of our goals is to make this as cost-effective as possible for the families,” said Nous. “We aim to provide all of our players with the equipment they need—from helmets and pads right down to the skates—so that families don’t have to worry about any expenses.”

The funds collected through grants offered by the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation, as well as through private donations, are used for ice time, equipment, uniforms or game events—all of which benefit the players. “Hockey is a very expensive sport,” Maust said. “We are a 501(c)(3) association and rely totally on grants and donations to fund operations.”

The USA Hockey playing season runs from September through May of each year, with local practices held one night a week at Robert Morris University Island Sports Center on Neville Island. If desired, participants may travel outside of the region to play tournaments in New York, Ohio, Michigan, Massachusetts and even Ontario, Canada, to name a few. 

“We have found that not only do the players bond with each other, but their parents do as well,” said Nous.

Butler resident and parent liaison Chris Weber agrees. “It brings tears to my eyes watching the enjoyment and excitement that the entire team has while they are participating in this very special sport,” he said. Weber’s son, Alex, has been with the Icebergs since its inception. 

“This team teaches him many skills that can be carried over off of the ice. He thoroughly enjoys each practice and event and has become very independent with the skills it takes to be an ice hockey player,” added Weber. “If it wasn’t for this program, he wouldn’t be able to participate in a sport that he has dreamed about since he was a very young child.” 

The Icebergs are always looking to build their staff of experienced coaches, junior coaches, and off-ice volunteers. For more information about joining, visit