Andrew Freidman and Drew Zucker pulled up to the freshmen dorms at Towson University in Baltimore on an early September morning to pick up their new teammate, Adam Rothstein, for the first hockey practice of the season. Half-asleep and not quite ready for a season of 6 a.m. wake-up calls, the two Towson juniors weren’t fully prepared for what Rothstein was about to bring, not only to their daily carpool, but to a team in need of a boost in morale.
“Everyone supports each other and picks each other up and
“He came to the door with the biggest smile on his face, just like he always does,” Zucker recalls. “He just has so much fun, and you can tell. He just wants to learn and be out there all the time skating.”
Perhaps Rothstein’s unbridled enthusiasm stems from the fact that not many people thought he’d be skating with a college hockey team when he first put on skates seven years ago. In second grade, Rothstein was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a developmental disorder on the Autism spectrum that affects a person’s ability to communicate effectively. People with Asperger’s struggle to understand social cues and body language and exhibit socially awkward tendencies.
Rothstein’s parents got Adam involved with various social skills groups and even tried a baseball team, but nothing stuck until Adam approached his dad about playing hockey. Rothstein’s father, Andy, after doing some research and making some phone calls, took Adam to his first practice with the Montgomery Cheetahs, based near their home just north of Washington D.C.
“I had no idea if he was going to take to it, but the coaches took him out and showed him how to skate,” says Andy Rothstein. “By the third week, he was skating on his own and he wanted to stay.”
The Cheetahs are part of the American Special Hockey Association, an all-volunteer-based organization with programs in more than 30 cities catering to approximately 2,000 athletes nationwide. It provided Rothstein and other kids with varying developmental disorders an opportunity to play hockey in a safe and comfortable learning environment.
“People say that it’s only a game, but inside that game there’s all these life lessons,” says Cheetah’s coach Dave Lucia, who has coached Rothstein and the Montgomery program since its inception in 2006. “The great thing about hockey is you’re able to learn these lessons because they’re inherently part of the game, and they learn them without even being aware it’s happening.”
Rothstein was accepted into Towson’s Freshman Transition Program, which allows him to take community college courses on campus while living in the dorms and adjusting to life away from home.
Lucia, after finding out Towson hockey coach Ed Slusher had ASHA coaching experience, was certain there was some way for him to be involved with the program.
“I made a phone call to see if there was someone who could mentor him or if he could be part of the team doing stats or something,” Lucia recalls. “But after seeing him practice, Slusher was impressed and said, ‘I can work with him.’ ”
While he can’t compete in games until he completes the FTP and becomes a full-time Towson student, Rothstein skates at every practice and participates in strength training with his teammates on Sundays, both of which have contributed to an exponential improvement in his hockey skills.
“When he started, he struggled a little because the tempo he was used to went from a walk to a sprint,” Slusher says. “He’s adjusted every practice. I think the hardest thing for him to learn was the drills, but once he learns the drills, he jumps right in.”
Rothstein has received a tremendous amount of support from his teammates both on and off the ice. Slusher sees his top players take Rothstein aside if needed to walk him through a drill, and Zucker has been helping him stay on track academically, providing a study partner for Rothstein’s philosophy class.
The entire team has benefitted too. As of late September, the Tigers had already posted half of their win total from last season.
“The team morale this year is much higher compared to last year,” Freidman says. “Everyone supports each other and picks each other up, and Adam is a big reason for that.”
“[Towson’s general manager] Peter Rorick told me that Adam was the best thing that happened to the team in a long time,” adds Lucia. “Because it makes the players realize how lucky they are to possess their hockey and academic skills and they’re inspired by how hard they see Adam work at practice that they work harder themselves.”
Between a full slate of classes, weekday practices and the adjustment all students make when they leave for college, Rothstein certainly has his work cut out for him, but like everyone who’s followed his progress can attest to, it’s nothing that’s outside his grasp.
“I’m excited to play my first game,” Rothstein says. “If I get even two or four minutes on the ice, that will make all the difference.”