During an American Hockey League meeting in which teams shared ideas and best practices, Stacie Rathbun, sales support coordinator for the Barons, learned about San Antonio Rampage’s similar project at a local childrens’ treatment center.
“It was just like, we have to do this,” said Rathbun.
The Barons and Rathbun (who championed the project) felt strongly about true partnership with involvement from both sides.
The Buddies’ season kicks off Tuesday, bringing the athletes and players together for what Rathbun describes as a “fun icebreaker.” The Barons bring in floor hockey, bocce ball and dinner.
“Then, to close the night out, we do a tour of the locker room — where very few people are ever allowed,” Rathbun said.
In the first two years of Barons Buddies, the partnership raised over $50,000. It’s a stark increase from the first Barons’ season, when the team held a Special Olympics night and auctioned off jerseys, raising around $12,000.
Josh Evans, Barons vice president of communications, said, “We’re so proud of our fans. Their generosity is out of this world.”
But the payoff isn’t only in dollars. “This is six nights a year where all is right and all you see is smiles. The athletes and the players light up,” said Rathbun.
Last year, Chase Buell — a 5-yearold athlete in the “Stars of the Future” program — was paired with then-team captain Josh Green.
“They really care, and they’re not doing it because they have to,” said Chase’s dad, Chad Buell. As a result of the team’s generosity, the Buells became season ticket holders. Buddies events throughout the year include bowling nights and other sporting events.
“We try to incorporate our players into Special Olympics sports and the athletes into floor hockey so they try each other’s sports,” said Rathbun.
The Barons still host the Special Olympics night, in which players wear jerseys that are later auctioned off.
“They’re just being kids, being people. And the players are just as excited about the event as the athletes are,” Rathbun said.
Chase Buell’s parents echoed her sentiments. “We loved having other people see the players interacting with our kids.”
Each year, around 20 Special Olympics athletes from age 4 to 35 participate. As long as they’re involved with the Special Olympics, athletes of all ages are eligible. For more information about the program, visit sook.org or okcbarons.com.