ARLINGTON, Va. — Originally, the Washington Capitals had a skating event scheduled for April as part of Autism Awareness Month. Like all recent group outings, the event had to be canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"I said that we're just going to make it bigger for next year then," Paige Dowd said.
Paige and her husband, Nic, are at the forefront for the Washington Capitals' outreach to families of children with autism, leading Dowd's Crowd. Dowd's Crowd partners with Autism Speaks to identify families to invite to Capitals games.
With all NHL games postponed, though, the Dowds had to get creative this April. Fans can download a blank puzzle piece outline at WashCaps.com and complete its design and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org before May 1. The winning logo will be used on drawstring bags that are used for Dowd's Crowd sensory kits next season.
"We have a lot of children living in our neighborhood and a lot of parents have now become teachers, and that in itself has a lot of challenges," Nic said of the stay-at-home orders. "I think the coolest thing is that whoever wins this, their puzzle piece logo that they colored is going to be our logo for next year. We go on walks in our neighborhood and they are up in windows."
Nic, a 29-year-old forward and former St. Cloud State captain, is in his second season with the Capitals. With 13 games left in the regular season, Washington (41-20-8) was leading the Metropolitan Division when the season went on hold.
With his time off, he is spending more time at his Arlington home with Paige and their 4-month-old son, Louie. Among other things, it has allowed them time to think about what more they can do with Dowd's Crowd.
"I wanted to make a kids' book that has a theme of what's going on," Paige said. "We've been thinking about it a lot since we've been stuck at home together. I think I want to put an 'I spy' in there somewhere. So that if they do get a little bored or distracted, they've got something else that they can do because the parents want to watch the game, too."
""A couple of times we've heard (from families) that they'd like some sort of explanation of what is going on in the game," Nic said. "They enjoy watching the game, but to a hockey novice fan, it is a difficult game to follow. You have whistles coming from all over the ice, four referees and there's 12 different players on the ice and it changes rapidly."
The families that go to the games as part of Dowd's Crowd get sensory kits, which have noise canceling headphones, sunglasses, a foam puck and a conversation card to help the child be able to fully enjoy the game without any triggers. People with autism have problems with communication and behavior.
"They get sensory overload and a hockey game has a lot of sensory triggers," Paige said. "The (goal) horn is so loud, for example."
Paige was a speech language pathology major at St. Cloud State and has worked with children with autism professionally. Nic got traded to the Vancouver Canucks in 2017, and that organization works with Canucks Autism Network. That got Paige interested in doing volunteer work with Nic for the next season.
Nic was a free agent after the 2017-18 season and then signed a three-year contract with the Washington Capitals. Shortly after, Dowd's Crowd came about.
"I had seen some normal struggles that typical children wouldn't think about," Paige said of working with kids with autism. "Like going to a game, (parents) just think about how their kid is going to want to run around or not want to sit. You don't think of them being terrified by the sounds and the sights. I wanted to make that easier and make it so every kid can come watch."
The Dowds buy the chosen families tickets to the games and then they get to meet Nic and Paige on the day of the game.
"People see my face and it's attached to my number and the Capitals, but Paige is essentially the founder of all this," Nic said. "Me playing hockey gives us the platform to do this, but she is the one behind it all.
"The biggest thing that I've taken from it is that the parents say that it's such a privilege to come to these games. I think, a lot of times, it's not something that they would consider doing because it could potentially be something with sensory overload and that's not something that they want to take on. Supplying them with the ability to come urges them to do so and we've really heard after the game that they've really enjoyed it. And it's created a space where both the kids and the parents can enjoy together that they wouldn't typically ever do."
This season, the Dowds also donated a suite for the top donors to the Autism Speaks Walk in Washington, D.C., and the donors got to sit with 10 families that were invited.
Picking the Capitals
Nic was able to make his choice for a landing spot in the summer of 2018. He was drafted in the seventh round (198th overall) of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft by the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings tried to sign him after his junior season at St. Cloud State, but Dowd turned them down.
He was the Huskies captain the next season, helped St. Cloud State win the first NCHC regular season title and scored the game-winning goal in overtime in the semifinals of the NCAA West Regional in 2014. That season, he was also named the NCHC's Scholar-Athlete of the Year, Best Defensive Forward, was an American Hockey Coaches Association All-America First Team pick and was a top three finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.
"When I retire, I'll miss things from the NHL and I miss things from college," he said. "I miss the atmosphere that we got to play in those arenas and the fact that guys don't get paid and the goal of playing college hockey is to win a championship.
"When you turn pro, there's just so many other things going on behind the scenes. It makes the goal of winning a championship a little different in people's minds. Everyone wants to win a Stanley Cup, no doubt. But at the same time, people are trying to provide for their families and you have people depending on you and other responsibilities.
"Also, you spend four years with a lot of those same kids and you grow those relationships. In pro hockey, I've been traded midway through a season and you lose friends and have to make new friends. Paige has been with four teams, three different organizations and it's challenging enough for her to make friends to begin with."
Nic played most of his first two pro seasons in the American Hockey League with the Kings' top minor league teams in Manchester (N.H.) and Ontario (Calif.). His first full season in the NHL was in 2016-17 when he played 70 games for the Kings.
In December 2017, he was traded to Vancouver and then signed with the Capitals after that season.
"I think the biggest thing was security," he said of signing with the Capitals the offseason after Washington won the Stanley Cup. "My career had been laden with moving and the unknown. I had been traded once and I had been unhappy in certain points of my career.
"It's hard on me, but I bring a lot of work home with me and it's hard on Paige. We were starting a family and you want a little stability in your life. I think we both really enjoy Washington and this is the best hockey team I've been on so far. It is full of great guys and guys signed to long-term contracts, so you know what you're getting."