BRIDGEPORT—The newest official member of the Sacred Heart men’s hockey program suited up with the Pioneers on Tuesday at Webster Bank Arena, but he had been out there with them before. Zakarai Schneider, 16, of Bethany, joined them on the ice a few weeks ago.
“We had him passing. What really blew me away is when he actually scored a goal,” Pioneers coach C.J. Marottolo said. “(His smile) just lit up everybody on the ice. That’s why you do this. That’s why you get involved.”
The Schneiders and the Pioneers connected last season, but Tuesday cemented the relationship. Zakarai signed a letter of intent, becoming the first youngster formally connected to a Sacred Heart team through Team Impact.
Zakarai plays with the Southern Connecticut Storm Special Hockey program and has been playing for about five years, said his father, Mark. He enjoys it, as his smiles Tuesday showed.
Zakarai has Down syndrome, apraxia, limited muscle tone and an intellectual disability.
“The thought was he might not even walk without crutches, when he was younger,” Mark Schneider said.
“He has communication challenges. He has a hard time, as you can imagine, fitting in with his peers. To buddy up with an elite hockey team, for him, it makes a world of difference.”
Mark Schneider emailed the Pioneers last season about Zakarai. The team invited him into the locker room, and Marottolo said there was an instant connection between him and the team. He’d give players high-fives on the way on and off the ice. He got friendly with the school band and “conducted” their performance.
The family found out about Team Impact but noticed that Sacred Heart wasn’t a member.
“Team Impact did a great job and connected the two. We had a small connection with coach, and they made that connection formally,” Mark Schneider said. “It’s been huge. I think it demonstrates to other schools and high schools and elementary schools that this buddying and partnering can be a positive thing for students.
“A lot of times I see students then getting motivated by that, changing their career to special education, working with these kids.”
Team Impact, according to its website, is “a national nonprofit that connects children facing serious and chronic illnesses with college athletic teams, forming life-long bonds and life-changing outcomes.”
The Pioneers hadn’t been partnered with the organization until now.
“It’s great that we’re the first one. The mission of Sacred Heart in whole, there’ll be other teams joining in for sure,” Marottolo said.
“It lends perspective to everything. … You want to win the game. You think it’s do or die, but it’s not really. There’s more to life than the sport we’re in, more to life than winning and losing. I think having Zak adds a whole other level of perspective.”
The plan is to include Zakarai in all kinds of team activities, at the rink and in the community.
“We’re all really excited for Zakarai to join our group,” captain Jason Cotton said. “Off-ice activities, things like go-karting, just being together as a group, we’re really excited for him to be a part, one of us.”
The Pioneers tied for third in Atlantic Hockey’s preseason coaches poll after reaching the league quarterfinals last year after a strong second half.
Sacred Heart opens Oct. 5 with a home game against UConn.
For more information: www.goteamimpact.org
By Michael Fornabaio | CT Post