By Scott Wheeler
January 26, 2017
When Richard Coffey delivers a TEDx Talk, or does play-by-play for his local Rogers TV station, or sells 50/50 tickets at Toronto Marlies and Argonauts games, or runs in his fourth student council election, his Asperger’s isn’t evident.
It hasn’t always been this way.
Until last May, he hadn’t opened up to even close friends about his challenges. Asperger’s inhibits his verbal and non-verbal social skills.
“When I was younger, I could not find a way to talk to anybody,” said Coffey. “I would just stand off to the side.”
Then, about eight or nine years ago, the Grade 12 student from Toronto said he started watching hockey because his brother was into it. Now, he thanks sports — and the Maple Leafs — for helping him open up.
“It’s definitely hard (dealing with Asperger’s), it has been a challenge, but it has also given me the want to focus on stuff like hockey,” said Coffey. “I would go to school and realize everyone was talking about hockey and I realized, hey, I can talk to these people for once; this is something I can use to actually connect to people and so that’s what I did. I started to just take everything I knew about hockey because that gave me an in, that allowed me to connect to people.”
Now, he’s an encyclopedia.
“Hockey really gives him a place to connect with people, but he’s able to connect on sports in general,” said his father, Grant. “You could say to him ‘who is the backup goalie for the Kings?’ and he’ll know and I couldn’t tell you who the starter is. He knows so much.”
A few years ago, Richard took up skating lessons and started playing hockey for himself.
“He loves being part of a team,” said Grant. “He’s not a superstar player on the ice, he’s kind of a spirit guy. He’s like a team guy and everyone’s rooting for him.”
This year, after watching his brother while growing up, the two are on the same team.
“He hasn’t always had the greatest motor skills, there are some things that impair his motor skills but he’s turned out to really enjoy it,” said Grant. “He’s never going to be Wayne Gretzky but he knows that.”
Richard grew up idolizing Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf. In November, he won tickets to the Leafs’ annual charity skate with the players.
“It was like Christmas, meets kid in a candy store, meets my birthday, meets everything put together,” said Richard.
It turns out one player already knew Richard.
“Connor Brown was his reading buddy at school several years ago and Connor actually recognized him on the ice,” said Grant. “It was kind of funny.”
“He actually remembered me!” added Richard. “It was amazing!”
Leafs Nation, as a whole, has been supportive of the 17-year-old, who has applied to a dozen media programs across the country for university. But there have been some issues.
“I have told some people, when they say ‘this guy is so autistic, it’s terrible,’ I’ve told people, ‘dude, don’t say that, it’s terrible,’” said Richard. “And I’ve told them that I am (autistic) and people have been open.”
The stigma around Asperger’s encouraged him to speak out, especially after he opened up to his friends. When he saw that TEDx Chatham-Kent was opening up an application process, he submitted one. More than 500 people applied, but Richard was one of the 18 chosen to speak.
In front of a crowd of more than 150 people, he delivered a simple two-word message: Talk more.
“It was warm, it was welcoming, everyone was really open, it was amazing,” said Richard. “It’s weird, you wouldn’t think someone with Asperger’s would do public speaking, but I sort of started doing it almost as a way to counteract that message. I do it to counteract the stereotype of that because people want to talk, they want to share this message, they just need people to listen.”
On that stage, in front of that audience and those cameras, Grant saw his child grow.
“For Rich to get up in front of a crowd and talk about something so personal, we’re so proud of him,” said Grant. “When he was preparing for that talk, he worked so hard to make sure he was going to get the message – he practised over and over again so that when it came time to deliver he was ready.
“It wasn’t about being known or attention, he just wanted to get a basic message across to help others, and not just with Asperger’s, but anyone who doesn’t feel they fit in.”
But this confidence stems back to the baby steps hockey and the Maple Leafs allowed him to take socially.
“Asperger’s helped me find my passion for the Leafs,” said Richard.
And his message made a difference.
“He’s a thoughtful guy, and he talks (in the TEDx) about going to those social classes and he really did and it helped him,” said Grant. “He’s talked at other autism events so he knows other kids and his relationships with other kids who have autism. So he gets it. And at the TED Talk, someone came up to talk to him about someone they knew with autism and to tell him his message really helps. It’s tough to get up and talk to an audience like that. You have to be very courageous and brave.”
On Bell Let’s Talk Day, Richard has a message.
“We can’t be afraid to share what our problems are,” he said. “People are willing to listen to what your issues are, I learned that myself. Even just one person, just talk to them.”