Hockey player with cerebral palsy suits up for Lacey varsity team
We all have that dream as high school athletes to get that one game, one play, one at-bat or one moment of playing on the varsity level to show we've made it and achieve the goal that even one chance means everything to some athletes.
18-year old Lacey High School senior Eric Czaplinski has cerebral palsy, which the CDC defines as "a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture, and is caused by abnormal brain development or damage to the developing brain that affects a person’s ability to control his or her muscles."
This doesn't stop Eric from playing the game he loves.
Following three years of playing Center on the Brick Stars Challenger League Program under the USA Hockey Program and being the team manager with the Lacey Lions, Eric was able to fulfill that dream every athlete has and play in his first high school varsity game against rival Central Regional on Monday night.
It's an opportunity that was developed by Lacey Coach Chris DiMicco who brought the idea to other Shore Conference coaches to provide Eric the moment to shine on the ice and the Central Regional High School Hockey Coach agreed to help make this night possible.
"Eric has been such an inspiration to the boys and myself...just seeing him play hockey every Sunday with his challenger league," DiMicco said.
As for the game itself, Eric was looking forward to just to playing Lacey's biggest rival in any sport.
"He was fired up for the Central game, I think it means more to him knowing it's a crosstown rival," DiMicco said. "He's been talking about it for about the last two weeks or so."
Leading up to the game Eric couldn't contain his excitement to be out there as one of the guys and his humility shined the brightest light of them all.
"This is a good opportunity for me against Central, this is a huge opportunity for me and being with my teammates," Czaplinski said prior to the game.
The dream of not only playing in the varsity game but scoring his first goal on Monday night meant the world to his parents, Kristine and Mark, as well.
"It's a very humbling experience. We never in a million years thought our son would be out skating with a regular high school team in a regular game," Kristine said. "They've all just embraced him and it's such a great experience for him."
"This is great, all of his family and friends are here. I didn't expect this turnout. He'll remember this forever and so will we...this is just amazing," Mark said.
During the time Eric has been the manager for Lacey, he has developed his skill set on the ice for the Brick Stars and his time there has led to his time on the ice against Central Regional.
"Eric's commitment to the program has been unbelievable," DiMicco said. "For him, hockey is everything. He motivates our guys, he always tells the boys, 'just play better'. One night he came in the locker-room and said 'let's get this going, let's be more motivated, get on your backcheck'. Our boys love him and the school community loves him."
Between Lacey Hockey and the Brick Stars, Eric has grown as a player and a person.
"It feels great playing with the Brick Stars and the coaches and getting the opportunities with going on the ice with Lacey too," Czaplinski said. "I'm really happy to be on the ice."
Eric is happy anytime he can be on the ice playing hockey.
"What I enjoy the most is being about hockey is being on the ice with my brother and the Stars," Czapliniski said. "I really enjoy playing hockey."
Even though there are moments of joy all the time, Eric still has some goals playing the game.
"I just want to get better at skating every day and get better at taking shots on the puck and getting the puck up," Czaplinski said.
His coach with the Brick Stars has seen so much growth in just a short period of time.
"I've never seen him get frustrated," Brick Stars Coach Alex DePalma said. "He went from learning to skate to learning to shoot and trying to get him to skate backwards and he's always smiling. He's never without a smile."
Coach DePalma said Eric is probably at his happiest when a few of his Lacey teammates join him on the ice in Brick around 6:00/7:00 am on Sunday mornings just to be with him.
"Anybody would be that happy if you had that kind of support from your piers," DePalma said.
"There's more to life than just sports. Sports is a big part of your high school life and what goes on and it builds you character wise and personality wise but some things that go on in our lives are bigger than just hockey," DiMicco said. "For them (Lacey players) they take that slice of humble pie when they're out there with Eric and just enjoy the fact that Eric is out there having fun and when they take a step back and see that, it is touching for them."
"It took a long time for Eric to find his spot socially and this team has really just embraced him and gave him that opportunity," Kristine Czaplinski said. "He fits in....they're his friends, they're just awesome group of kids. He's really come out of his shell just being apart of this hockey team."
Eric is an example of a player who plays the game the right way and for fun and doesn't let any challenges stand in his way of getting onto the ice and playing.
"Dealing with Cerebral Palsy and coming out here and skating...I mean it's hard enough to walk let alone be out here and skate, there's always that fear of falling that every kid has but you know...it's inspiring, it's inspiring and then to actually come off balance and shoot a puck and not have the stick on the ice to hold you....I mean this is something everybody should see, that you can overcome any obstacle in your life," DePalma said.
Eric's moment in time on the ice playing for Lacey against rival Central Regional means the world to him, his coaches, his teammates, his family and friends and to the school and Ocean County community.
"I think it really bridges the gap between the two schools (Lacey and Central) and saying 'hey, listen we're just different schools and are competing for the same thing but at the end of the day we're still the same community. We live in Ocean County and we have to keep the community together," DiMicco said. "What an inspiration he's become. I know he doesn't think he is but for most people around the area they understand that you have to be included in everything. It doesn't matter what disability you have or anything going on in your life, you can be included, it's alright, you can get the opportunity and there's always something for you to do in any sport."
Eric's playing future beyond high school is not yet determined but he said that he is open to continue playing and volunteering.
Coach DePalma said Eric can continue to play hockey with the Brick Stars for as long as he wants to play.
His favorite professional hockey team is the New Jersey Devils and his favorite player is rookie Jack Hughes who plays the same position on the ice that Eric does...Center and is also the same age as Eric...18-years old.
Eric went on to score two other goals Monday giving him the hat-trick against the Central Regional Golden Eagles which also earned him a shoutout by his favorite team, the New Jersey Devils.
Every athlete has a different skill set which separates them from those who can play at the next level and those who can't make the cut but every athlete can have the ability to play and surround their sport with the heart, passion and humility Eric Czapliniski uses on and off the ice on a daily basis.
Kevin Williams contributed to this report.