The sun had barely risen when hockey players, proudly pulling equipment bags on wheels, and their parents, armed with thermoses of steamy coffee, arrived at Reisterstown Regional Park. Many had driven for more than an hour. It could take another 15 minutes or so to help players into skates and heavily padded gear. But when the Baltimore Saints Special Hockey League players take to the ice, those sideline supporters know their efforts are well-spent.
Noah Savick, 8, one of 60 developmentally disabled children who spend Saturday mornings learning the rudiments of ice hockey, skated beside his mentor, around and around the rink. He does not communicate with words, but smiled broadly at cheers of "Go, Noah!"
"His facial expression says it all," David Savick said of his son. "He is working on his repetitive skills, and he loves being around other kids. This fits right into his therapy for one-on-one exercise."
Last season, this same child needed a walker and two mentors to help him skate. A month into the new season, he is skating several yards on his own.
"I see little miracles every week," said Savick, a Reisterstown father of four. "I thought it would be years, but last week he skated by himself."
Parents credit Jim and Teresa Zinkhan for most of those miracles. The Parkville couple started the program a year ago at the request of the American Special Hockey League, because Jim Zinkhan was well-known in the skating community.
"The league told us there was a dire need in this area and we knew we had to fill it, even though we had no idea how," Teresa Zinkhan said.
They started a nonprofit organization, gathered dozens of volunteers, set up a board of directors and put together their first program last year with about 45 children, 16 of whom traveled to the USA District Hockey Tournament in Buffalo, N.Y., in March.
The player roster keeps growing, mostly from word of mouth, and the volunteers, particularly the hockey-experienced mentors, keep coming.
"The first time they come, these mentors are hooked," Teresa Zinkhan said. "They see firsthand the difference they are making with the kids."
Tyler Dinan, 16, drives an hour and 20 minutes from his Bel Air home.
"These kids literally wrap around your heart," said Tyler, who has played recreational ice hockey. "I have no idea how, but this works. Every session, kids improve."
A player and coach for more than 30 years, Jim Zinkhan skates for all three one-hour sessions. He is so attuned to the children that he knows when they are tiring, when they need a drink and when they are faking. He has been known to sing to motivate them. He has won accolades for his skating prowess, but he knows how to get down to the beginner's level, his wife said.
To accustom the children, who range in age from 3 to 22, to the ice, he put together plastic walkers at his auto repair shop in Towson. Many eventually abandon the walkers and skate with a mentor by their side.
Zinkhan's talent on skates is matched by his wife's organizational skills. She has filled the loft he built in their garage at home with bins of equipment, uniforms and skates, all labeled by size. Each player is given everything, from shoelaces to helmet. Players also choose the number that goes with their name on the back of the Saints jersey - the front features the image of a Saint Bernard dog.
Josh Gibson, 9, chose the number his mother, Lisa, wore as a field hockey star 20 years ago at the University of Maryland. He has taken the jersey to school for show-and-tell several times, his mother said.
"With all his hockey tales, he is a big hit," Lisa Gibson said. "These children all want to believe in something, but they don't know how. Here, they know so many people care about them and are their friends."
Robert Schlicht brings his two sons to the rink from Havre de Grace. When Andrew, 5, completes his session, he sits on the bench and watches his 9-year-old brother Alex skate without a walker.
"I didn't fall down," Alex shouted, as he came off the ice. "Give me five!"
Then he thanked Andrew and his father for staying to watch.
"It really is the highlight of their week," their father said. "Every Friday they start asking, 'Is it hockey yet?' "