A Night To Remember: Xpress Hockey Team Reaches Out To Autistic Boy

On the night of the final home game of the North American Tier III Hockey League season, Southern Tier Xpress assistant coach Travis Sanders walked into the locker room at Northwest Arena to find 22 of his players posing for an impromptu team photo.

The Kodak moment wasn’t arranged in advance, though.

Heck, Sanders knew nothing about it.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he said Tuesday night, “the kids ran with this one.”

And, as a result, the young men figuratively ran into the collective hearts of the Barber family of Sinclairville, because in the middle of the scrum was Christopher and Cathy’s son, Jacob.

With a big assist from Xpress players Joey Gerace and Jacob Zwieg, the 10-year-old was invited to join the players as their special guest.

The memory of that February evening gives Cathy chills.

”My heart is still full,” she said earlier this week as she walked the track at the Northwest Arena. ” … Honestly, for those kids to even offer to take him … I was amazed.”

The Southern Tier hockey team surrounds Jacob Barber, middle, in the locker room prior to its final home game last month at the Northwest Arena. Jacob’s invitation was issued by Xpress players Joey Gerace and Jacob Zwieg, who befriended the 10-year-old and his family this season. Photo courtesy of Cathy Barber
The Southern Tier hockey team surrounds Jacob Barber, middle, in the locker room prior to its final home game last month at the Northwest Arena. Jacob’s invitation was issued by Xpress players Joey Gerace and Jacob Zwieg, who befriended the 10-year-old and his family this season. Photo courtesy of Cathy Barber

Jacob, who will turn 11 in May, is in a BOCES class at Chautauqua Lake Central School where he is bused every day.

He is also autistic.

“His vocabulary isn’t there yet,” Cathy said, “(but) it’s coming.”

Continued kindness like that shown by the young men wearing Xpress uniforms certainly helps.

Ironically, had Cathy not started walking the track at the arena last November during her lunch hour, the relationship between the team and her son might never have developed.

”Since my mom passed away, I needed something else to do on my lunch … so I started walking,” Cathy said.

During one of her visits late last year, she ran into rink employees Rich Wilson and Kyle Heelas.

“They threw me a couple Xpress tickets and said, ‘Why don’t you check out a game?’” Cathy recalled. “Never was hockey in my life, but now I love it and we came to every game since.”

But nothing could have prepared the Barbers for what happened during their visit to the Xpress’ last home game when, courtesy of Gerace and Zwieg, Jacob received a special invitation.

“When that Friday night came along, we went down to the locker room and (the players) were all excited to see Jacob,” Cathy said. “I took the picture of them together. Coach Sanders gave him a puck and we came up and watched the game.

“Jacob gets excited when there’s excitement, when there are fast skaters, (when he sees) the Zamboni, (hears) the music. He loves it.”

But there was more in store for the youngster after the game.

With tables set up in the lobby, the Xpress players signed autographs on team posters that were distributed to those in attendance as part of Fan Appreciation Night.

”(Gerace and Zwieg) picked Jacob up and pulled him over on their side of the table and put him on their lap,” Cathy said. “Jacob was definitely the king that night.”

The gesture of kindness shown by the team, and Gerace and Zwieg in particular, warmed Sanders’ heart.

“They’re both standup guys, personalities and teammates,” he said. “They might not have letters (on their uniform sweaters), but they command a presence. They’re good people.”

Sanders said Gerace and Zwieg have also helped with the House and Beginner leagues at the arena as well as assisting, when available, with the sled hockey program.

“It makes me light up just thinking about it,” Sanders said.

Cathy knows the feeling.

“They were all so good with (Jacob),” she said. “It makes it even more of a family and they included Jacob in their family. We’re sad the season is over.”

For the Barbers, and Jacob in particular, the 2017-18 season can’t start soon enough.

Original article by Scott Kindberg, The Post-Journal.