Douglas Farrow                                Ten teams and 200 players took part in the 9th Special Hockey Tournament at Rutland Arena.

Douglas Farrow Ten teams and 200 players took part in the 9th Special Hockey Tournament at Rutland Arena.

Growth continues for Special Hockey Tournament

Children, young adults with autism and other disabilities play in annual tourney in Kelowna

With the 10 teams, 200 athletes and 600 people for dinner on Saturday night, the 2018 Special Hockey Tournament was bigger than ever.

The ninth annual event, which gives children and young adults with autism and other developmental disabilities a chance to play hockey, was held over two days last weekend at Rutland Arena.

The driving force behind the tournament is Phil von Unruh, who founded the Okanagan Wildcats Special Hockey program in 2006.

“I have to admit it’s pretty gratifying,” von Unruh said of the growth of the grass roots tournament over the years. “To see the enjoyment the players get and the smiles on the parent’s faces is really great.”

Since founding the program 2006 to give his son and other children with special needs an opportunity to play hockey, von Unruh has started up other teams in Vernon, Penticton, Kamloops and the Lower Mainland. There is also now a program in Victoria. In 2016, the von Unruh started the Kelowna Wild to give players another place to play after aging out of the Wildcats program.

As the tournament grows, the logistics of hosting the event become more of a challenge. Still, even with 600 people to feed for dinner on Saturday night, von Unruh said all went pretty much as planned.

“We had dinner at Trinty Baptist Church and with that many people, we had two sittings, but it worked out pretty well. We had magicians, batman, Rockey Raccoon was there, a photo booth to keep people entertained. People seemed to enjoy it.”

von Unruh said this year’s tournament also benefited from the presence of a professional photographer. Jeff Bassett, who has covered the NHL in his work, volunteered his time to shoot some of the action and von Unruh said the results “were amazing.”

von Unruh also lauded the work of many who have assisted in fundraising for the program over the years, as well as important donors such as CIBC Wood Gundy.

The 10th annual Special Hockey Tournament will be held next year in Kamloops.