Ice Breaker: Hockey draws out the best in Sullivan
NEPTUNE - Danny Sullivan has a smile and personality that could melt ice. The warmth is genuine and a side of the teenager that, for a good portion of his young life, was never guaranteed to ever reveal itself, drawn out by the very frozen surface that threatens to liquefy every time his blades set foot upon it.
Sullivan was diagnosed on the autism spectrum at the age of 2 1/2 years-old, suffering particularly from the complicated social anxieties associated with the developmental disorder. In an effort to break the paralyzing grip that leads one to reserve conversation and avoid eye contact, his parents, Dan and Colleen, instantly became proactive, seeking various avenues through sports in hopes of gradually dissolving the spell.
“My dad was struggling about which sport I was going to play,” Sullivan vividly recalled. “So, I played baseball, basketball, soccer…but, the one sport I loved was hockey. My first time ever playing I was five and I was struggling to skate and shoot the puck. My dad helped me to shoot and skate.”
Dan Sullivan enrolled his son in the Brick Stars, a program run by Alex DePalma at the Ocean Ice Palace that’s specifically designed to introduce those with special needs to hockey. His son began like most new to the ice, using a chair. However, while most novices push one to establish balance, Danny’s introduction entailed him sitting on one while coaches escorted him around to get acquainted with the sensations of being on a rink.
It was love at first sight.
“It was like riding a rollercoaster,” Sullivan said of the initial experience. “The guy was pushing me around the ice and my dad was chasing me. It was like the best day of my life.”
Within an hour of taking his initial seat, Danny rose on his own, picked up the difficult intricacies of maneuvering on skates across a slick sheet and never looked back. A natural was born.
Joy filled his heart upon discovery of his athletic calling and those social obstacles that cluttered his young life slowly started to subside, replaced by two of the most important elements his parents hoped to one day find for their son.
“I was happy and it was fun,” Sullivan said. “I proved myself to be a hockey player. Hockey is my legacy. I was born to play hockey. And, I've made a lot of friends from my teammates.”
“When we heard about the program, we signed him up,” added his father. “He was in this in-between situation. He was real athletic and a bit more advanced than other special needs kids in the challenger programs but he wasn’t good enough to play in the rec programs. He was a tweener. I grew up playing hockey, so when we saw the program in Brick, we signed him up and he took to it right away. It warmed your heart.”
What was meant as a way to defrost social anxieties blossomed into a pursuit that achieved its original goal in many ways and surpassed everyone’s wildest dreams of what it could deliver. Sullivan, a sophomore at Neptune High School, only got better, bigger and stronger while investing in his passion. His game matured, the stick becoming almost an additional appendage to his sturdy 6-0 frame. His versatility on blades made him an interchangeable asset who can play anywhere across the front line as well as lend some time on defense.
Some important people began to take notice. Sullivan shined at Frankenfest, a Halloween hockey tournament held at the Richard J. Codey Arena at South Mountain in West Orange that draws competition from throughout the United States and Canada. In three games, Sullivan recorded two hat tricks and caught the eye of higher ups in USA Hockey.
Invited to attend an event in Boston, Sullivan once again didn’t disappoint, his performance raising his stock to the heights that in the late fall, he was pulled off the ice at a morning workout to be informed he was selected for Team USA, which will compete at the inaugural Disabled World Cup in Las Vegas this May.
“I was shocked,” said Sullivan, who at 16 years old, is the youngest member of the national team and the lone representative from the Garden State on a roster with players from hockey hotbeds like Minnesota and Alaska. “When I got home, I went in the backyard and it was raining and I was yelling ‘I’m going to Las Vegas, baby.’ One of the best days ever.”
Seems like that has almost become a daily mantra for Sullivan and more of those kind of days still lie ahead of him. Once shy and introverted, Sullivan offers an embracive personality that brims with pure joy, a byproduct of a family search to find what makes him happy.