Over the past year, so many people have had their daily lives change due to COVID-19. In January, the Pittsburgh Penguins created a new PPG Community Heroes program to recognize those who have gone above and beyond in our community helping others as essential workers.
Also, the National Hockey League celebrates March as Gender Equality Month. The Penguins have designated their home game on March 7 as Her Hockey Day presented by 84 Lumber; and we are beyond proud to honor Julia Konitzky this Sunday as one of our PPG Community Heroes!
Julia is an advocate for the special hockey and autism community, as she serves on the Steel City Icebergs Board of Directors as Treasurer. She is also a proud hockey mom, former nurse with UPMC and a future Certified Autism Specialist.
The Steel City Icebergs is an adaptive ice hockey program for both children and adults with developmental disabilities such as Autism, Down Syndrome and traumatic brain injury. The program teaches participants how to play ice hockey in an environment adapted to each individual’s ability. This unique program combines sensory input, social interaction, self-reliance and a willingness to adapt to new experiences with a sense of accomplishment and pride.
In November 2018, she helped organize and execute the first ever USA Hockey “Special Hockey Classic” tournament held at UPMC Lemieux Sports Center in Cranberry. Over 300 athletes attended from across the United States and Canada.
A true hero within the special hockey community, Julia is committed to her work of improving the lives of those with both physical and mental limitations. In addition to the USA Hockey “Special Hockey Classic,” she has donated her time and efforts to many Penguins and Penguins Foundation initiatives including the Happy Hockey Days event. She also assisted in creating the Penguins sensory kits that were distributed to five special hockey teams throughout Western PA on the International Day for People with Disability.
Inclusion in sports for special needs individuals and creating a positive experience through hockey has been paramount in Julia’s personal mission. And her efforts have not only helped the athletes; but have also focused on the special needs families and caregivers.
“While competition is beneficial to the athlete physically, emotionally, and socially; the benefit to caregivers and family is tremendous,” stated Julia. “The opportunity to bond with other families for a weekend, sharing common struggles and concerns, is most beneficial for parents and caregivers. Events like tournaments provide a much-needed venue for informal peer support and sharing of experiences among families of children with disabilities.”
Julia has also hosted events to help bring opportunities of peer building and creating a neuro-diverse environment both on and off the ice including the Steel City Iceberg’s Annual Spooky Skate and Try Special Hockey for Free events. She has also invited club and school hockey teams to participate in skills practices, creating a wonderful opportunity for both the special athletes and their mentors.
As the pandemic has disrupted so many planned events over the past year, Julia sites a huge missed opportunity as the USA Hockey Disabled Festival was cancelled. The Festival was set to be the largest event in the USA Hockey organization, with over 2000 disabled athletes from more than 130 teams throughout North America coming to Pittsburgh.
But times are changing and we can all look forward to when current restrictions are lifted and we can get back to the work at hand – using the great game of hockey to include everyone who has the dream of playing.
And so, the Penguins Foundation salutes Julia Konitzky for her tireless work on behalf of all the special athletes, their families and caregivers…and for her unwavering determination to create inclusion in the exciting sport of hockey.