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Defending their hockey gold

U.S. Paralympics sled hockey team is heading to Turin, Italy, with a distinct Buffalo-Niagara flavor

News Staff Reporter
Don't snuff out that Olympic flame quite yet.

The U.S. Paralympics sled hockey team is heading to Turin, Italy, and it's a team with a decidedly Buffalo-Niagara flavor.

Three of the 15 team members live here, and all play for the newly renamed Buffalo Sabres Sled Hockey team, proudly wearing the pro team's "third" jerseys, the red ones with the crossed swords.

Later this month, the three men will trade in their Sabres colors for the red, white and blue of the U.S. Paralympics team.

Chris Manns, 25, of Buffalo is the veteran of the group, bringing home the gold from the 2002 games in Salt Lake City after he notched a shootout goal in the gold-medal game against Norway.

Brad Emmerson, 20, of Amherst, who started in sled hockey at age 9 after being an unofficial water boy on the Amherst youth hockey team his father coached, will bring a grinder's mentality and a scorer's touch to the Paralympics.

Alexi Salamone, 18, of Grand Island, who is still in high school, is the speedster of the group, flying around the ice as a forward for the U.S. team.

For the uninitiated, sled hockey is played like regular hockey, except that players sit about 4 inches above the ice on 4-foot-long aluminum sleds with two skate blades attached to the bottoms. They carry two cutoff stick blades, stickhandling and shooting with the blade, while the metal teeth on the other end dig into the ice to propel them down the rink.

Watch the sled hockey players for any length of time and you're impressed by both the speed and quick turning ability of the sleds and the uncanny shooting accuracy, as the players use either hand to hit the corners of the net or go "top shelf." Shooting drills are filled with the sounds of pucks clanking off the crossbar and posts.

And then you can sit down and hear the players' stories of how they have overcome their disabilities, whose causes run the gamut from serious accidents to birth defects.

Manns is a double amputee from a train accident in March 1991, when he was 10. He, two brothers and two friends were looking for snakes and mice at the railroad tracks near Amherst and Tonawanda streets when a train severed his left foot and his right leg above the knee.

Emmerson has what he calls a mild case of cerebral palsy, from the waist down.

And Salamone, was born 14 months after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster with deformed legs and had both amputated above the knee at age 4.

All three took some rough roads to get to the ice, where they share a love for the freedom and speed of the game.

"You go out there, and we're all on the same playing field," said Emmerson, a Williamsville North graduate. "And it's the one game I can go out and play with my brother [Mat]."

These guys are athletes, and they would rather talk about the USA team's chances and about the thrill of being a Paralympian. The United States is considered one of three favorites, along with Canada and Norway, in the eight-team field.

"I'm not going over there to win a gold medal," Manns said. "I'm going over to defend it. It's ours to keep."

As the veteran in the group that's heading to Turin on Friday, Manns plans to tell Salamone and Emmerson to take a few deep breaths, relax, play their game and have a great time.

Salamone, a senior at Grand Island High School, said he expects to be like the little kid in the candy store, meeting people from all over the world.

"Just to be in the same [Olympic] venue, wear the USA stuff and play for the USA is amazing," he said. "How many people have that opportunity?"

The three local men make up 20 percent of the U.S. squad.

Sabres Sled Hockey coach Rich DeGlopper and president Norm Page attribute the local team's success to several factors: the longtime stiff competition against Canadian teams; the family-based organization that has disabled people playing with their able-bodied relatives; and the group's vision.

"We've always wanted to be a model for the rest of this country and Canada, for what a sled hockey organization could be," Page said.

As they head off to Turin, Emmerson and Manns both wanted to talk about a person who inspired them.

Emmerson mentioned his friend Sean Galliher, who died two years ago while exercising on a treadmill at age 17. "I want to win the gold medal for him," he said. "When I'm out there and having a bad day, that's what I think about."

Every time he steps on the ice, Manns thinks of his late grandmother, Medora Halbert, who pushed him and inspired him. He knows his grandmother, who died two months after the last Paralympics, will be watching again as he flies around the Turin ice in search of gold. "I know she's got the best seat in the house."