You would never have known it if you were in the building at the time, but the event taking place at the Havre de Grace Activity Center on Friday night, Feb. 28, was a sad one for most involved, as it marked the end of an era.
That evening, the group of special needs athletes and local volunteers hustling up and down the court playing floor hockey, a no-skates version of ice hockey, were playing their final games after a 10-year run of weekly contests.
Wayne Hedrick, of Bel Air, who started and directed the floor hockey program with his wife Kellie and son Andrew, stood at the end of the court after the final game had concluded, handing out commemorative hockey jerseys to the players he had been working with for the last decade.
He explained that the program, which had come to be known as Harford Hockey Night, was closing because he and the coaches who had kept it running are facing time constraints.
"This was a great, great program, and we got a lot out of it," Hedrick said in between saying goodbye to athletes and volunteers. "But, some of the coaches and I have things in the future that will keep us from keeping it going the way it should be run. That's sad, and nobody wants to see this end. We had a great run though, and we wanted to end it on a high note, not have it turn into something else by trying to keep it going on too long."
"Nobody could have done a better job than the coaches here tonight," Dirk Robinson, a Forest Hill resident who is director of the outreach program Foundation of Miracles, said during the final night's games. "To have kept this going for 10 years, every week, is amazing. Everyone involved gave it everything they had."
Since it started 10 years ago as part of Special Olympics Maryland, Harford Hockey Night and its participants saw the program push past some major hurdles. A donation that came as the program was staring covered the cost of equipment that was still being used as of the final night. And, the loss of support from the Special Olympics meant that the Harford County floor hockey players were left playing among themselves, rather than also having games with players from other areas.
"A few years ago, Special Olympics Maryland decided to close down the floor hockey statewide," Hedrick said. "There was a lack of interest in other counties, so we just decided to keep playing among ourselves, every week. We renamed it 'Harford Hockey Night,' and kept it going."
"When we were just getting this thing started, Kevin Powderly, one of the founders of Cybercore Technologies, made a check for $5,000, and that got us all the equipment we needed to get going," Hedrick continued. "That helped us out more than I can say. Without that donation it would have been a different story."
"The last two years it's just been the Harford County players and coaches continuing with it," Midge Coppenger, one of the volunteers present at the final send off, said. "Wayne and the coaches were the only people in the area who stuck with floor hockey. There are other options for the athletes, other sports that are available, but this program was really something special. It's sad to see it close."
Hedrick said the 10-year venture began when he and his family volunteered to help at a Special Olympics golf outing.
"I watched a little girl putting from two feet away, and she hit it as hard as she could," he said. "I went to talk to her, and right away my heart just melted. I wanted to start something in Harford County, and because my son Andy had played ice hockey, floor hockey seemed a natural fit for us. I had never worked with anybody who had special intellectual needs before we started this, so I was scared to death. But, it turned out to be something great."
John Stansfield, a member of the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company who took a break from coaching and playing goalkeeper during one of last games, expressed sentiments similar to Hedrick's.
"I came out to one of the hockey nights as a volunteer at the start of this season, and just immediately fell in love," Stansfield said. "The athletes and coaches are all so dedicated. Everyone has a great time, every week."
Since the end of October, Harford Hockey Night was held at the Havre de Grace Activity Center, which was offered, free-of-charge, by the Havre de Grace Recreation Committee's Karen Green.
"That was a real blessing," Hedrick said. "Karen said, 'This place is yours as long as you want to use it.' There were other places to play in Harford County, but they all came with rental fees, and we might not have been able to keep going this long without use of the Activity Center. We're really thankful for this."
Following the final game, Robinson handed out awards to players and volunteers on behalf of Foundation of Miracles, and then everyone said goodbye.
"It is sad, as I said, but everyone is leaving here tonight with a smile on their face," Hedrick said. "That's what we wanted from the start, to give everyone something to look forward to. To go 10 years and keep it going like we did, that's something we can all be proud of."