Tikvah Camper Bryce L. in the Providence Journal!

The following article about Tikvah camper Bryce Lavalla appeared last week in the sports section of the Providence Journal:

When Hockey Becomes a Gift to Share

His eyes are wide open with wonderment — just like a little kid on Christmas morning. But Bryce Lavalla doesn’t need to wait for Santa’s annual appearance. He has the URI men’s club hockey team for six months out of the year.

“These guys do so much for him,” said Kevin Lavalla as he watches his son follow the every move of a recent URI practice at the Boss Arena.  “He doesn’t take his eyes off them.”

This is a tale of giving, but not just Christmas giving.

It’s the story of how for nine years now from September to early March a hockey team has enriched the life of a young man with special needs. And in the process the players’ lives are richer in all the important ways that don’t show up on the scoreboard.

Bryce Lavalla is a 23-year-old East Greenwich resident with Down syndrome.  He is an accomplished athlete in his own right with a host of Special Olympics medals hanging on his bedroom wall. But from a young age, he also enjoyed watching others play sports, whether in person or on TV. “He likes the sports that have a goal or a basket at each end. He likes watching the action going back and forth,” said Kevin Lavalla about his son. His father is a Bryant University graduate, and Bryce had been a regular at Bryant men’s and women’s basketball games for years.

But one day in the fall of 2004 he walked into the Boss Arena and his life changed.

“The lady who took care of Bryce after school until his mother came home from work was a wonderful woman. We called her ‘Wonderful Dottie,’ ” said Kevin Lavalla. “She wouldn’t let Bryce just sit around and watch TV. She was always looking for something for him to do. She didn’t know anything about hockey, but one day they were driving past URI and she saw the hockey rink. She said let’s go in and see what’s happening in there.”

A love affair was born.

“We had no idea that he liked hockey, but from that first day he loved watching them just practice,” said Kevin Lavalla. “Dottie came home that day and said we have to start going to URI hockey practices and games.”

So for nine years every week during the URI hockey season Bryce is at Boss Arena, usually twice a week, sitting in the stands watching the Rams practice. His eyes never leave the players on the ice. Every time the Rams play one of their American Collegiate Hockey Association games on weekends at Boss, he is there wearing his URI jersey.

He may not communicate in regular verbal language, but words are not needed to express his love of hockey. His eyes, the smile on his face, tell the story.  “You can see the passion in his eyes,” says URI coach Joe Augustine.

It was Augustine, the former Boston College hockey star who has been the URI coach for 24 years, who laid the groundwork for Lavalla becoming much more than just another hockey fan. After watching him at a few practices that first year, Augustine had Lavalla come onto the ice in his street shoes after practice and shoot a few pucks at the cage. But it was more than just someone with special needs shooting a few pucks on an empty rink. Augustine had his players stay on the ice and watch from center ice so they could share the experience.

Before long it became a ritual. Anytime Bryce is there, the URI practice ends with him shooting pucks at one of the team goalies while the rest of players stand at center ice, banging their sticks on the ice each time one of Lavalla’s shots somehow finds its way past an obliging Rams goalie. Every time the Rams play a game, Bryce heads into the locker room right after the final buzzer.

“I’m not sure who is more excited after the team wins a game, the players or Bryce,” said Kevin Lavalla with a laugh. “It means everything to Bryce,” Lavalla added. “He’s a guy’s guy. There’s nothing like being in a locker room with a bunch of guys after a game. He just loves it, and they welcome him in.”

“It all started with Joe and his players followed,” Lavalla continued. The team roster changes from year to year, but for almost a decade now every player who joined the team quickly learned the spirit of giving as well as the art of playing hockey. “Making him happy, seeing his reactions makes us feel good,” said junior forward Sean O’Neil. “It’s rewarding seeing the smile on his face, how excited he gets.”

The appreciation is reciprocal.  “He makes everybody smile; everybody is happy around him,” said O’Neil. “It definitely puts everything in perspective, not just hockey-wise, but life in general,” added senior goaltender Matt DeJulio.

For a group of young college athletes, it’s a constant reminder of the purity of sports. How the simplest aspect of a game can bring joy and happiness. “It makes us realize how lucky we are,” said senior forward Mike Tait. “What he goes through and how happy he gets. We should appreciate what we are doing out here.”

“Just seeing how passionate he is. I think if more people just possessed as much passion as he does in life, the world would be a lot better place,” DeJulio said. Sometimes the best gifts don’t come wrapped in pretty paper.