On his bedroom wall in Glen Arm, Md., 9-year-old Cole Matulonis has a life-size Fathead of Capitals star Alex Ovechkin. When he plays hockey on video games, he is Ovechkin. Always.
So you can imagine the excitement of Matulonis, who was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at the age of 3, when Ovechkin stepped onto the ice Monday at Kettler to skate with members of the American Special Hockey Association (ASHA).
“He winked at me and gave me a high five,” Cole said. “I think he’s just amazing. I always wanted to meet him. He’s really nice and really funny. He was smiling a lot. I never thought I would see him in real life and be this close to him.”
“Ovechkin is Cole’s idol,” said his father, Don Matulonis, a mentor with the Baltimore Saints special needs hockey program that skates out of Reistertown (Md.) Sportsplex. “He loves him. He’s all he talks about. In his mind he’s going to be playing on a line with Ovechkin eventually with the Caps. So this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for him. It’s amazing.”
Working with special needs children is nothing new for Ovechkin.
On Saturday night, before the Capitals’ season opener against the Devils, Ovechkin was escorted onto the red carpet by Ann Schaab, an 11-year-old Caps fan with Down syndrome who asked Ovechkin on a date when they were on the ice for a similar event last season. Ovechkin granted Ann’s request by inviting her to dinner and a Caps game last season.
Ann Schaab was back on the ice on Monday as Ovechkin skated with more than 60 special needs players, then presented ASHA with a $29,646.81 check from Monumental Sports & Entertainment Foundation.
While that money will go a long way in purchasing equipment for special needs players, Capitals coach Barry Trotz said the time Ovechkin gave on Monday will go a lot further to the parents and children who took part in the event.
“I think that’s great,” said Trotz, whose 14-year-old son, Nolan, was born with Down syndrome. “I’m in that fight, if you will. I live that every day. He sees the beauty in kids with special needs. A lot of them don’t have a mean bone in their bodies. They just want to be loved and accepted and I think Ovi recognizes that and he gets a kick out of it. He still has a lot of joy in his game and he’s a big kid inside.”
Trotz and his wife, Kim, have three older children in addition to Nolan and Trotz said he appreciates the challenges parents face with raising special needs children.
“I’m gifted to have a wife that puts in a lot of those hours, because I could not put those hours in,” Trotz said. “You need a special person to do that. If you have more than one or two kids, that special needs child puts a lot of demands on the focus of that child.
“It’s hard for parents because your life changes totally. Your focus on what’s important in raising a child is a lot different. Some kids go to school, they come back, they go to sports, they dress themselves at a certain age. And some don’t. You’re doing that for them until they’re older and maybe all their life. That’s the hard part.
“Personally, when you get an event that Ovi is putting on, when kids get a chance to be out on the ice with their peers and having fun and have a big smile on their face, as a parent that brings a lot of warmth to the heart. So what Ovi’s doing is absolutely fantastic.”