OCEAN COUNTY – High school senior Eric Czaplinski scored his first ever ice hockey goal for his team, the Lacey Lions, and the crowd at Winding River Skating Center in Toms River went wild.
The Lions were playing their cross-town rivals, the Central Regional Eagles on February 3, and both teams stopped the game and gathered around Eric in an emotional tribute to the first physically disabled high school student to play in a regular game.
The 18-year-old is one of the team managers for the Lacey Lions, which keeps him close to the game that he loves. Through hard work and perseverance, he learned how to skate through the Brick Stars Challenger Hockey, a program in Brick Township for children and young adults with developmental disabilities.
The program’s founder and director, Alex DePalma, was on hand at the skating center to see Eric as a starter, and at the end of the first quarter he played again and scored the goal when a teammate passed him the puck, giving Eric the open shot when he scored.
Now in its tenth season, DePalma started the Brick Stars Challenger Hockey program after learning about a special needs’ hockey program up north. He thought it would be a good fit for Brick if they could find the ice time.
“We didn’t know anything, but we said we’d figure it out,” DePalma said. “We started with eight kids and now we’re up to 65.”
The program is for children ages five and up, from all over Ocean County, DePalma said. Eric was the program’s first player with a physical disability, he added.
“Eric watched his younger brother, Justin, skate in the Brick Hockey Club, and he said he wanted to get out on the ice,” DePalma said.
He started skating with a PVC walker, but after three years Eric can now skate without it.
“Any child who wants to come out and skate with us, whether they are developmentally or physically disabled, we’ll find a way to get them to skate,” DePalma said.
Eric had to work hard and persevere, DePalma said. “These kids just have so much heart, Eric just kept trying. He’s an inspiration – they all are.”
Brick Stars Challenger Hockey has one team that functions at a higher level and plays other teams, and another team that doesn’t compete and individuals skate with a hockey partner, DePalma explained.
Eric worked one-on-one with Manny Olivera, who also came to see Eric play at Winding River. Olivera, who is an elementary school teacher in Newark, said Eric was motivated to skate without the PVC walker by a bet.
“Eric is a Devils fan and I’m a Rangers fan,” Olivera said. “I told him, if you can skate around the ice without the walker, I’ll wear a Devils jersey.”
Eric won the bet and Olivera wore the jersey.
The game at Winding River was one of the final games of the season, and Eric knew he would be starting the game and would be playing again during the third period, explained Lacey Lions ice hockey coach Chris DiMicco.
“Eric has been part of this program since his freshman year, and this will be the first season he actually suits up with us,” DiMicco said.
Evan Nachman, a sophomore who plays for the Lacey Lions, said Eric loves everyone.
“He’s always positive, and he keeps our team up,” Evan said. “He has a joyful spirit and he always keeps us motivated to play better and play hard. He never has a bad attitude towards anything.”
Eric’s parents, Mark and Kristine, who also have a daughter, Lauren, 15, said their son was born three months premature and only weighed 2.5 pounds at birth, resulting in the cerebral palsy.
Eric has had some tendon-lengthening surgeries on his legs, and has been in and out of casts and braces, Mark said.
“He is the most positive kid. He’s always happy and he cheers people up,” Kristine said. “He tries the hardest at everything he does.”
Mark said he didn’t think his son would ever be able to skate, but Eric wanted to try it. “We said if he couldn’t skate, we would take him to sled hockey.”
“Manny took Eric under his wing and started with the PVC walker, and he still goes back to that when his legs get tired,” Kristine said.
The two high school teams are rivals, she added, but ice hockey families know each other.
“Everybody has been so great to him,” she said. “They’re awesome with Eric.”