Average Rush fans take a few things for granted. They know when they come to a game at The Monument Ice Arena that there will be fans clanging cowbells throughout the evening. That a loud horn will blast throughout the building when the home team scores. That there will be pyrotechnics and other special effects, including flashing lights and loud, blaring music.
However, this will not be the case during the team’s first-ever Sensory Friendly Night, sponsored by Mountain Plains Audiology, on Sunday, March 19. In conjunction with Black Hills Works and LifeScape, the Rush have planned Sensory Friendly Night as a way to accommodate and include those with a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).
“[People with SPD] may come in feeling okay but are close to not being okay, and some of those things can send them over the edge,” said Rebecca Spangler, an occupational therapist at LifeScape. “Which can turn into disruptive behavior and unsafe behavior.”
Many of those affected by SPD or who have difficulty processing sensory information are on the autism spectrum, but the two are not mutually exclusive. SPD involves how a person receives or responds to sensory information, affecting normal functioning and disrupting everyday life. People with SPD can be over or under responsive to one or multiple senses.
“Sometimes individuals will have extreme reactions to certain noises or lighting events,” Spangler said. “So having an environment for this game where that is eliminated or reduced can be super helpful in preventing those emotional outbursts.”
Both Black Hills Works and LifeScape were approached early in the planning process by the Rush, who sought out their expertise on exactly what steps the team and arena needed to take to make the night a success.
“The most important thing was ensuring that the environment was as sensory friendly and inclusive as possible,” Spangler said. “Making sure that the lighting, the sounds, potentially the smells, the things you’re going to interact with are as friendly as possible. Making sure that families and kids cannot be startled or surprised by anything and hopefully not get overwhelmed by the environment.”
According to Spangler, what that means is less across the board—lighting, sound, surprises and variables throughout the in-game experience. So, wherever possible, the Rush have eliminated those surprises and removed many variables for Sunday’s game.
The volume on the PA system will be lowered for the entirety of Sunday’s game. Lights will not suddenly go dark before the teams take the ice. The sparks and pyrotechnics that typically accompany the starting lineup announcements will be absent. And the goal horn will not blow when the Rush score, nor will a horn blast at the end of each period or to signal a media timeout.
But there’s no way to completely eliminate the risk of fans with sensory processing difficulties being overwhelmed, so the Rush have also created a sensory room and sensory bags to help accommodate anybody who might encounter an issue during the game.
“[A sensory room] has lots of calming input,” Spangler said. “Lower lights, even more reduced sounds and other things that are going to hopefully help an individual to calm.”
Some of the objects that can be found in a sensory room are beanbag chairs, weighted blankets, soft play resources and chairs that rock. The entire room is geared toward maintaining a calming atmosphere. On Sunday, the Rush’s sensory room will be set up in the Aspen Room, just outside of the Singh Contracting Club Level, featuring items donated from Coca-Cola High Country, Fleet Farm, YMCA, Black Hills Federal Credit Union, Target and The Monument.
The sensory bags will include noise-canceling headphones, ear plugs, fidgets, activity books and other items to help individuals self-regulate. These items were provided thanks to Firehouse Brewing, Mountain Plains Audiology, The Monument, LifeScape and Outback Steakhouse.
Many individuals supported by Black Hills Works are expected to attend the game, some of whom have never been to a Rush game.
“There definitely is [a buzz],” said Carrie Moser, Director of Engagement at Black Hills Works. “Being able to introduce them to what may be their first live hockey game I think is going to be amazing. It’s been on the radar for quite a few months, and people are ready to go.”
The Rush have asked season ticket holders and any fans who attend Sunday’s game to leave their cowbells and other noisemakers at home. Those who miss the message and bring them will be given the opportunity either to leave them with Rush staff at the guest services booth by the entrance or to return to their vehicles and stow them before they enter the game.
Black Hills Works and the Rush have a relationship that spans nearly the entirety of the franchise’s existence in Rapid City.
“[Our focus is to] not look at what someone can’t do but trying to figure out what they are able to do,” Moser said. “And whatever that may look like because of what my interests are is completely different than someone else’s, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to participate in our community however I am able to.”
The organization provides a wide range of services, which are tailored to individuals’ unique needs. That spans everything from 24/7 support to do all basic tasks to providing case management or employment support for people who live in their own apartment or with a family member.
Two individuals supported by Black Hills Works, Kendall Comfert and Josh Gilbert, will be involved in the game in a front-facing way. Gilbert, who has spent more than 10 years as the public address voice of Canyon Lake Little League, will announce the game’s starting lineups on the PA before giving way to Adrian “Gunner” Ludens for the remainder of the game. And Comfert, a die-hard Rush fan with aspirations of being a broadcaster, will co-host the opening segment of the pregame show on the Rush Hockey Network, alongside the Voice of the Rush, Brian Gardner.
“Part of our mission at Black Hills Works is to create a community where everyone gets a chance to participate to their full potential no matter what their disability or ability is,” Moser said. “So being able to find a new way to include people with sensory struggles and anything like that I think is a phenomenal opportunity.”
There is a growing trend in live entertainment to hold sensory-friendly events. Rapid City is not the first ECHL franchise to do this; the Cincinnati Cyclones have done so for four seasons. And more venues, including the Summit Arena at The Monument, have begun to include permanent sensory rooms.
Everyone involved understands that Sunday’s game is unlikely to go off without a hitch. But the fact that it’s happening at all is an important step to those who work with this population on a day-to-day basis. And hopefully, something for the Black Hills community to build upon.
“I would hope that the Rush can set an example for other sporting events and other events in the community of how to do these sensory-inclusive events,” Spangler said. “So that all types of individuals with all types of abilities can attend.”
“It is amazing how taking something and tweaking it so someone new can participate, just what an impact that has on that individual’s life,” Moser said. “[We are grateful] to the Rush for giving this a try and for all the work that went into making this happen for the fans that are out there. It’s truly phenomenal, and what an impact it is making.”