Anthony Parascandola hit the ice when he was 3-years-old with his dad and by the time he was 7-year-old he had a hockey stick in his hands.
"I know when I'm on the ice, I have a great time. It's a 'stress free' zone for me," Anthony explains.
But, what started out as childhood fun and later a healthy, grownup way to release stress has morphed into a lifeline to kids and the parents of kids suffering from Autism, which is described as a disorder of neural development characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior. Symptoms generally begin before the child reaches 3-years-old.
The mother of 9-year-old Jake Karas says Anthony has been a godsend to her and her son. "He was our first child...I would take him shopping -- cash registers -- electronic doors that would open and close, he would just SCREAM the whole time. When you have a child like Jake, there are very LIMITED play dates," Nancy Karas says thinking back.
Then three years ago, Jake met Anthony, the volunteer junior coach for The New Jersey Daredevils, which takes its name from the Garden State's, Stanley Cup-Winning Team. "He was like my little brother, in a way," Anthony remembers. Nancy credits the close relationship with improving her little boy's quality of life.
"He laid on the ice -- and screamed," describing what life was like for her then, 6-year-old son. "Anthony would always -- as he walked in, say ' Hey Jake, how ya doing? How ya doing?' And there friendship developed from there," she says.
She goes on to say that Anthony was always helping him get his skates on and Jake would talk to him in the locker room and he went out of his way to look out for him because he saw how Jake had to struggle because his autism.
" By the end of the season, Jake was finally starting to make progress," according to Nancy. In fact, he was doing so well, she decided to hire Anthony as an off-season coach.
"I worked with Jake for four to five months. He made great improvements. He was very dedicated and improving his social skills. Every time I got off the ice with him, he had a smile on his face, and I had a smile on mine," Anthony says.
"He was telling me, 'Mommy -- I'm a hockey player!' "
New Jersey Daredevils Head Coach Jon Schwartz has some idea what life is like for kids like Jake who're autistic. Had his own neurological challenges as a child, adding the reason he co-founded the team was to use hockey to help kids like Jake, just like it helped him.
" When I was 8-year-old, I was diagnosed with a neurological disorder called Tourette's Syndrome. But, when I found hockey, there was something about the stimulation of getting out there. The breeze on my face, the cold air, the smell, the space...that was really attractive to me."
That's how the Daredevils were born. The team started out with six children, ages 6 to 26; it's now 56 strong.
Jon says since becoming an adult, he's realized what hockey did for him and now he's using dedicated volunteers like Anthony to do the same thing for the Jakes of the world.
"New Jersey leads the nation in autism. It's a hotbed for children with developmental disabilities," Jon explains -- adding, "we're supplying a great need, and the growth of the program is amazing."
Nancy says the skills Anthony has been teaching Jake on the ice are having a positive impact on his day to day existence, adding her little boy is now 90 percent "mainstreamed" into his public school class.
" He takes these skills being a team member and transforms them to school, being a team member, waiting to take his turn. Now that he's mainstream, the mainstream kids are welcoming him with open arms. He went to a couple of birthday parties, with typical children," Nancy says...
Jon continues: " We have kids that have gone through our program that have gone on to get girlfriends, graduate high school, get driver's licenses, even go to college!"
Meanwhile, young Jake says he's a better player because of Anthony.
"Anthony had the option of sitting on the couch, eating cheese doodles, and doing video games. But, he CHOSE to use his spare time to come here, do something he loves, and found a friendship with someone he wouldn't expect to," says Jon.