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When My Child's Disability Was Mocked at an NHL Game

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Dear Colorado Avalanche players and staff,

Saturday, February 16 is the day I will remember as the day the NHL attacked my family’s “sacred Saturday.”

Early Saturday evening, my husband and 5-year-old daughter left the bright lights of the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. He texted me to say, “We don’t need to attend any more Avalanche games. I’ll explain when I get home.”

We purchased these tickets, along with three others, from a Black Friday Sale. Your lackluster season was our ticket to a good deal. Or so we thought. After what happened Saturday afternoon, we’ll just toss our last pair and eat the cost.

Our pregame activities began with our precocious 5-year-old ransacking her room for her bubblegum-colored Colorado Avalanche jersey to offset her Dad promoting the rival Blues in a Wayne Gretszky throwback. They were energized for the game despite snow, traffic and a line to take pictures in front of Bernie the Saint Bernard cutout.

Unbeknownst to my husband and sweet daughter, your organization was about to mock our family and countless friends on the big screen in front of 17,000 others.

I bet you don’t even know what incident in the second period I am referring to. That’s OK, I am sure you thought it was entertaining or you were just fulfilling your job by making an entertaining skit during one of the many breaks that occur in a live sport. I will give you a slight pass. Maybe you are fresh out of college. Or don’t have children. Or you have never seen the daily battles of someone with a learning disability, invisible or otherwise.

Do you have a sense of humor? Is this cheap prank, this parlor game, even funny to the unconcerned spectator? I am past the point of indifference; I feel assaulted. I am sure you are touting this season up as a philanthropic success with your “Hockey is for Everyone Campaign” and your contributions to the blind community. This only highlights the hypocrisy.

You are standing up for one group with disabilities while simultaneously mocking another to fill a timeout downtime.

Still don’t know what I am referring to? How about this — bumper boat.

“Bumper boat” repeatedly said by athletes through a mouthguard for the “mouthguard challenge.” My daughter saw her heroes laughing at each other while struggling to speak. The same struggle she faces daily.

She is one of the one in 1,000 kids living with childhood apraxia of speech (CAS). Both of my daughters have CAS. This is a rare, neurological and motor planning disorder. My girls know the words they are trying to say, but they get jumbled in their brains.

The big screen was invented to unite. Be it to give away prizes or romantically connect strangers; now it was used as propaganda for large-scale bullying.

Kids with apraxia work so hard. What you reduced to a joke is our reality.

Hadley couldn’t blow out the candles on her first, second, third or fourth birthday cake. People couldn’t understand her saying her name until she was five. It took thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours with specialists for her to be able to do that much. When she began preschool she didn’t have the skills to tell me anything about her day. I would be lucky to know what she had for a snack.

As a parent, to hear your child cry because they wanted to play with a kid or to tell the teacher a story — and no one could understand them — was painful. Ruoyan from Beijing and Sophia from Malaysia were my daughter’s first school friends. The girls spoke Cantonese, and Hadley spoke Hadley, so she felt loved and included. A few years into the apraxia diagnosis she still experiences debilitating anxiety. She will often chew through a shirt at the thought of having to do a new activity where she may get excluded or mocked.

A quick Google search of mouthguard challenges reveals videos of Avalanche players doing your parody, the top mouthguard games of 2018 and this heart-wrenching definition:

“Put in your mouthguard and you’re good to go! The mouthguard makes the simplest things like talking, whispering, drinking and blowing nearly impossible! In order to win this game you have to listen closely, guess, keep yourself from laughing and do some of the weirdest things you’ve ever done!”

This takes us back to “bumper boat.” My brave daughter, in the midst of what was a great time, saw people laughing on a stadium-scale at someone’s struggle to speak. All the wind left my sails with that one.

Bumper Boat, to my family and to my larger community, is when you threw off the gloves.

As my oldest daughter approached her third birthday, after a year of speech therapy, we knew our ideas of parenting were veering off their intended course. My husband and I bonded over our love of sports and we couldn’t wait to enroll her in every one. Instead we’d practice speech sounds for hours, drilling flash cards, books, watching webinars and obsessing over whether our child would ever speak. All we wanted was for someone to help her speech become intelligible enough for her to communicate.

Her treatment is frequent, intense speech therapy with a specially trained speech/language pathologist. Often these sessions are not covered by insurance, and they are not 100 percent effective.

As we embarked on the lonely journey of being parents of children with apraxia, we decided to keep our weekends free of therapy, and termed them “sacred Saturdays.” This is a luxury that some of my working friends do not have. Between my two daughters last week they had 12 non-concurrent therapies.

To make up for missed play dates, gym times cut short and snow days with extra therapy instead of sleds, my husband and I overcompensate.

Our weekends are made of swim lessons, Sunday school, Disney on Ice, Paw Patrol Live, gymnastics and Avalanche games. We just want our children to feel understood and accepted. We want their memories to be silly, joyful and lighthearted. We want them to stay children for as long as possible.

My husband felt all of his lively memories of NHL games sour as the cameras panned to players and fans putting in a mouthpiece for a three-minute gag. Is the Avalanche organization that unaware? Can you not see this mouthguard challenge is an every minute, every day struggle for our innocent children?

These are my questions.

Who pitched this idea? Who encouraged that person to recruit players for the skit? Who laughed in board meetings when the game was on the table? Did anyone think it felt wrong or dirty?

My daughter with apraxia saw people struggling to speak being laughed at.

The fact that this was a game wasn’t obvious to her. She couldn’t fathom why anyone would choose to make it harder to talk. When the audience laughed at the big screen, my sweet and sensitive daughter Hadley must have felt they were laughing at her.

A mother’s first instinct is to protect her child. I initially wondered if an organization like the Colorado Avalanche could really be so self-involved not to think of all the people with various disabilities who struggle to speak clearly.

My daughter then asked me when the next hockey game was going to be, and in that moment all distrust faded away. It was replaced by hope.

The hope in an innocent child’s eyes who had her heart broken, but forgave the hurt as quickly as it came.

I realized in that moment I would be like my daughter and choose hope.

May 14 is Apraxia Awareness Day. Instead of mocking those who struggle to speak on the big screen, my hope is that the Colorado Avalanche and others can be a champion of them.


Jessica Timmerman

Photo from

Originally published: November 11, 2019
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