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Daniel Urban (left) poses with his parents, David and Adrienne, and his little brother, Gabriel.
02/03/2012 12:01 AM -

The Griffins Youth Foundation gives kids of all types a chance to play hockey.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Daniel Urban is not your average ice hockey player, nor is he your typical kid.
The 11-year-old boy has Asperger’s syndrome, which is an autism spectrum disorder found in otherwise normally functioning children who encounter difficulties in social interaction and exhibit restricted or repetitive patterns of behavior.

You might not expect to find someone like Daniel even skating on the ice, let alone playing hockey on a team with others. Kids with Asperger’s syndrome can be socially awkward or physically clumsy, not exactly a positive prescription for playing a challenging game like hockey.

Thanks to the Grand Rapids Griffins Youth Foundation, Daniel is getting the opportunity to not only enjoy the sport he loves, but also to excel beyond expectations.

During a youth hockey game on a recent Saturday, Daniel celebrated scoring three goals on the same shift, an incredible accomplishment for anyone, especially someone who could barely skate when he started.

“It’s an amazing opportunity,” said Daniel, who is in his second year in the program but his first playing alongside his six-year-old brother Gabriel. “I wouldn’t be able to play if not for the Griffins Youth Foundation.”

His progress has been very encouraging to his parents – David, an associate professor of English at Calvin College, and Adrienne, the author of a healthy living blog ( who also homeschools her two boys.

“It’s done great things for Daniel because he had never played a sport,” the boys’ father said. “Just to be able to realize he can contribute to a team is a big deal.”

“It means almost everything to him,” his mother acknowledged. “It’s been pretty unbelievable.”

The Urban family’s introduction to the Griffins came through the organization’s summer reading initiative, which provides ticket vouchers to local libraries as rewards for kids who complete summer reading programs.

“We all went, and from the first game we were hooked,” Adrienne said. “It was so much fun and we liked the family atmosphere, and now Daniel lives for the Griffins.”

It was at a game at Van Andel Arena where the Urbans learned about the opportunities that the Griffins Youth Foundation provides for kids to play at Griff’s IceHouse at Belknap Park.

Established in 1995, the Griffins Youth Foundation promotes academic excellence, community involvement and healthy lifestyles among the youth of West Michigan, enhancing their lives through hockey and ice-related sports.

“We try to provide opportunities for kids who would never be able to participate in a pay-to-play program,” said Lynn Rabaut, executive director of the Griffins Youth Foundation. “We look for children who have a barrier to play, whether it’s gender, a medical issue, a learning disability, or financial or emotional hardship.”

In the Griffins Youth Foundation hockey program, there are diverse kids of all colors and types, from the hearing impaired to a child with an insulin pump to autistic kids like Daniel.

“We want to make sure that children – who wouldn’t have an opportunity elsewhere – get the chance to play,” Rabaut said. “Other leagues are not in a position to accept the type of players we embrace. We try to provide an atmosphere where kids can come in and learn to play.”

That opportunity starts with providing good mentors.

“A lot of our kids need the personal guidance that our coaches have time to give,” Rabaut said. “We’re providing an opportunity to play where none might have existed, while encouraging a positive atmosphere that promotes and supports ideals like sportsmanship and teamwork.”

It’s a healthy environment for kids like Daniel, who would struggle in other programs if they even were afforded the opportunity to play. “His coaches last year and again this year have helped him a lot,” David said. “They give him the affirmation he needs.”

Daniel doesn’t need much affirmation when it comes to following the exploits of his favorite team. His mother calls him the “Rain Man of the Griffins,” noting that he not only can recite the names of all the players and their numbers, but can quote the three stars from a specific game, or recall the goaltender from a certain date.

Children with Asperger’s syndrome often display traits that cause them to be abnormally intense or focused. They become incredibly interested in one thing, almost to the point of obsession.

“The first thing in the morning, he’s reading the score sheets and articles from the Internet,” Adrienne said. “He’ll call his dad and tell him who’s injured, who’s moving up and moving down. The Griffins are a big deal to him.”

In addition to attending Griffins games at Van Andel Arena, the Urban family watches practices at Griff’s IceHouse, which has allowed Daniel and his brother to even meet a number of the players.

“This is incredibly fun for me,” said Daniel, who also enjoys writing a weekly essay for his coach, fulfilling the program’s homework requirement. He is excited that the Griffins Youth Foundation will expand its hockey program to 12th grade this fall. “If my parents allow me to keep playing, I plan on playing for a long time.”

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