It’s 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday, but it feels like 6:30 because it’s the first morning of daylight savings time and an hour of much-needed sleep instantly vanished when the clock struck 2:00 a.m. While the PYHA Tigers 14U A team has the morning off with a leisurely 2:00 p.m. home game, a few members of the team find themselves still waking before sunrise, despite arriving home after 10:00 on Saturday night following a game at Barnabas Health Hockey House in Newark, sandwiched between two performances of the Ringling Brothers Circus, making the journey a little more challenging than usual. They arrive at Mercer County Ice Rink shortly after 7:00 a.m. and lace up their skates, taking the ice with the other junior coaches of the Mercer Bulldogs Special Hockey.

Every Sunday morning from November through March, you’ll find up to 40 Bulldogs Special Hockey players practicing at Mercer County Rink under the guidance of up to ten coaches and 20 junior coaches. The Bulldogs players range in age from five through adult, and represent just a handful of the over 4.5 million people in the United States living with developmental disabilities, such as autism, Down syndrome or cerebral palsy. The goal of the Bulldogs program is to help disabled children and adults develop characteristics like dependability, self-reliance and confidence through participation in hockey.

Relying on the support of volunteers, the Bulldogs reach out to local travel hockey programs to fill their junior coach positions. This season, as has been the case for many seasons since the inception of the Bulldogs program in 2010, many Tigers stepped up to volunteer their Sunday mornings when their travel hockey schedule permits. There were seven Tigers on hand for this particular practice, which was the last of the season: John O’Donnell, Benjamin Reichbart, Jakob Papiez, Christopher Cordasco, Zachary Kandel, Collin Penders and Ty Thomas. This is the second year volunteering for some of the Tigers, and most of them will return next year, despite the early hour and the brisk temperatures at the covered, outdoor rink that the Bulldogs call home, because there’s an unmatched joy in skating on a fresh sheet of ice first thing in the morning that the Tigers enjoy sharing with the friends they’ve met at the Bulldogs.