Kristian Joliat, a member of hockey teams for those with disabilities, and his mother, Sarah Joliat, who started the program in Maine, are seen Thursday before an off-season practice at Colby College’s outdoor track. Anna Chadwick/Morning Sentinel

Sarah Joliat and her son, Kristian, are living proof that with persistence and passion, one can accomplish big goals.

Recognizing that Maine had no ice hockey program for those who are intellectually and developmentally challenged, Sarah Joliat went to work in 2019 to help build one in Waterville and now, there are several such programs in places such as Orono, Brunswick and  Falmouth.

Her efforts were as much a determination to get a program started for others as it was for Kristian, who is on the autism spectrum and has Helsmoortel-Van Der Aa syndrome, a complex neurodevelopmental disorder.

Joliat knew from experience that hockey — and other sports — can be a godsend for children and their families.

“I tell people, skating and swimming are probably the best things you can do for your kids — skiing, too,” she said. “The brain has to fire on all its axes to get those neurons going and build pathways to learn how to do the sport.”

When the family lived in Watertown, New York, in the mid-1990s, they attended local hockey association games. Being from Maine, they loved the sport. At the time, Kristian was about 4. He was nonverbal, could barely walk without assistance, had muscle tone problems and was not developing on pace with his peers, according to his mother.

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The team, which had a very inclusive model, welcomed Kristian to join, despite his needs.

Kristian Joliat is shown when he first started skating in 1996. Photo courtesy of Sarah Joliat

“My son thrived in this community,” Sarah Joliat said. “It was amazing. It reminded me so much of Maine.”

Kristian acclimated to hockey gear and while he spent the first year kind of rolling around on the ice, eventually, he began to blossom, she said. His muscle tone improved, as did his fine and gross motor skills, and he learned how to fall safely on the ice.

“My son would not be what he is today without skating and hockey,” she said.

When the family returned to Virginia in the late 1990s, a coach saw Kristian on the ice and took an interest in him. He became part of the House League but when he neared the age of 18, they knew he wouldn’t be able to continue because of the age cutoff. Kristian’s coaches, JD Lash and Paul Mulvey, discovered a program in Toronto and with local parents, helped develop a team at their Virginia rink.

The team started under the USA Hockey Disabled Hockey program — there are six disciplines of disabled hockey, Sarah Joliat, said — and they are now a tri-affiliate program: Special Hockey International, USA Hockey and the American Special Hockey Association. They are three different groups with similar goals and missions and each sponsors its own programs, tournaments and events, she said.

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Special Hockey started in the mid-1970s under Pat Flick of the Grand Ravines Special Hockey Team in Toronto, and it started in the U.S. in 1994 under USA Hockey. The American Special Hockey Association was founded many years later.

A few years ago, Joliat, a retired fire lieutenant, and her husband, Ronnie Rodriguez, a battalion chief for the Fairfax County Fire Department (who is now Skowhegan fire chief), moved from Virginia to Unity, Maine, to be closer to her family in the Bangor area. She called the American Special Hockey Association, got the ball rolling, and in 2019, started raising awareness and talking to people in Waterville, Bangor and Orono about starting a program modeled after the Virginia one.

Kristian Joliat skates with the Bruins Alumni during the Frozen Fenway fantasy camp in 2023. Photo courtesy of Sarah Joliat

“The pandemic came and everything shut down which made it hard for us to gain ground,” she recalled. “Our big break was Colby College. We couldn’t get sponsors anywhere, there was no community support, no funds, no ice time.”

She approached Colby officials and shared information about the Virginia program. Ironically, she said, someone in the athletic department at Colby was from the northern Virginia area and was familiar with the program. Thus began discussions, back and forth, about creating a hockey program for athletes with intellectual, developmental and physical challenges.

“Colby came back and said, ‘Yes, we’d like to help you out,'” she said.

The hockey program was initially started under the American Special Hockey Association, but it is now a tri-affiliated program that allows athletes to take part with more teams and events, including the Special Hockey International they attended last month in Massachusetts.

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A nonprofit program, Unified Special Hockey of Maine was started with five players, and team volunteers raise funds and recruit sponsors. While the program started in Waterville, it spread to Orono, Brunswick and Falmouth.

Collectively, the players are known as the Maine Highlanders hockey team.

The Maine Highlanders hockey team, shown at Colby College in Waterville, comprises athletes with intellectual, developmental and physical challenges. Photo courtesy of Unified Special Hockey of Maine

Joliat said only five Maine athletes were able to go to the international event last month, as funds were limited.

“Our goal next year is to have a full team traveling to the tournaments,” she said. “Many of our athletes lack financial resources and aren’t able to drive. They also have limited or no access to transportation to the activities they wish to enjoy. We are hopeful that through fundraising, sponsorships and donations, we will have enough funds to restock our loaner equipment cache that has been exhausted, and to also provide transportation for our whole team to go to a few Special Hockey tournaments and events coming up this year in New England and New York.”

Anyone who wants to help may visit the website mainehighlanders.com or go to the group’s Facebook page. Those wanting to donate, volunteer, coach or learn about how to start a team may contact Sarah Joliat at mainehighlanders@yahoo.com.

Members of special hockey teams for those with disabilities stretch prior to an off-season track practice Thursday at Colby College in Waterville. Anna Chadwick/Morning Sentinel

“I want to see programs at every rink in Maine — that’s my goal,” she said.

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Team players are of all ages and when indoor ice is not available, they take part in other sports including swimming and track.

Kristian Joliat, now 32, is known as “the governor,” because he is so enthusiastic about hockey, loves people, and is eager to raise awareness about the program.

“Hockey is my game,” he said, “and I love it.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 35 years. Her columns appear here Saturdays. She is the author of the book, “Comfort is an Old Barn,” a collection of her curated columns, published in 2023 by Islandport Press. She may be reached at acalder@centralmaine.com. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to CentralMaine.com.


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