All Alex Weber wanted to do was play hockey.
His older brother, Adam, played for the Butler Valley Dawgs and he wanted to follow suit.
“Adam taught him how to skate,” their mother, Penn Township resident Chris Weber, said. “We got him skating lessons.
“Alex struggled with it when he was seven or eight years old. He was having trouble keeping up and the game changes as kids gets older.
“We made the decision to pull him off the team ... It broke his heart,” she added.
Alex Weber has Down Syndrome.
He still wanted to be a hockey player. So do other youths and adults like him.
So the Steel City Icebergs were formed, courtesy of the organization’s founder and first president, Stephanie Maust. She is also a Penn Township resident and close friend to the Weber family.
“I felt Alex should have the opportunity to play the game,” Maust said. “So I started researching.
“I found there was an American Special Hockey Association nationally. I e-mailed them, started networking with people and we put together a business plan.”
That was in 2008.
Today, there are more than 100 special needs hockey programs like the Steel City Icebergs across the country.
The Icebergs have approximately 45 players in the organization now, ranging from youths to adults, players with autism, Down Sydrome, traumatic brain injuries, etc.
The team practices once a week at Robert Morris University’s Island Sports Center. The Icebergs travel to tournaments in Columbus, Buffalo, Rochester (N.Y.) and other nearby cities.
“Teams also come to us,” said Evan Gorse, a former Knoch hockey coach in his fourth year with the Icebergs. “We group players together based in skill level.
“Our players range from age 4 or 5 to adults in their 20s and 30s. Some exhibit solid hockey skills, others are learning to skate while learning the game. They progress at their own pace.”
Scores of the games are not important. At times, the score isn’t even kept.
It’s the thrill of lacing up the skates and hitting the ice, stick in hands.
Alex Weber remains with the Icebergs today.
“This program has really helped him with his sensory skills,” Mrs. Weber said. “His social growth and development because of this team ... I can’t even measure that.”
Gorse said some of the biggest benefits to the players occur off the ice.
“They are so proud to stay in a hotel together, travel together to the tournaments — they feel a true sense of team,” he said.
Mark Nous, vice president of coaching for the Icebergs, said “once they start checking in hockey, a lot of these guys have to get out of it.
“There is no checking in our association. We play a modified version of hockey, but it’s hockey. Anyone who wants to play should have the opportunity to play.”
The Icebergs’ season runs from September through April. The team plays 10 or more games each year and there is no fee to play.
The Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation, coupled with the Hockey Sticks Together organization, helps see to that.
“The Penguins have been more than generous with us,” Nous said. “They help pay for the ice and equipment.”
Mars resident Julia Konitzky’s 6-year-old son, Matthew, has autism and has been with the Icebergs for a few weeks.
Another one of her sons, 10-year-old Paul, plays for the North Pittsburgh Wildcats and is a junior volunteer with the Icebergs.
“I can’t say enough about that program and what it’s done for Matthew,” Mrs. Konitzky said. “He’s more verbal now. He’s excited about taking part there. He feels like he belongs now.
“He’s socializing more, thinking on his own a lot more, he talks about hockey ... I’m truly amazed.”