Adam Page, left, and team captain Andy Yohe go for the puck during practice at the Bud Bakewell Rink in Buffalo's Riverside Park as they prepare for next month's Paralympics in Vancouver.
Robert Kirkham / Buffalo News

Goal set: Paralympic gold

Buffalo Nine overcome physical challenges to earn slots on U.S. national sled-hockey team

News Staff Reporter

Five of them battled through birth defects or disease, whether it was cancer, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis or spina bifida.

Another came back from a serious spinal-cord injury suffered in a hockey game. Two others overcame the loss of legs after being struck by a train or a car.

And one plays his sport at a world-class level after having lost his legs as a result of the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl.

But now they are all teammates in Buffalo, on the U.S. national sled-hockey team.

They work out together here, both on and off the ice, for about 15 hours a week, with one goal: winning Paralympic gold in Vancouver next month.

Nine of the 15 members of the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey team now live in Buffalo. That's 60 percent of the team.

Call them the Buffalo Nine.

There will be a real Buffalo flavor to the hockey players heading to Vancouver in the next month for the Olympics and then the Paralympics. Western New York, in a sense, is sending 17 players and coaches to various teams: these nine sled-hockey players, five Buffalo Sabres players, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, and Western New York natives Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks and Brooks Orpik of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Any national team comes together through a combination of fate and hard work. That seems especially true with the sled-hockey squad.

"There are 15 guys out there," said Norm Page of Lancaster, the national sled-hockey representative for USA Hockey. "Every one of them has a story. Every one of them has overcome more adversity than other athletes, whether it's a birth defect, an accident, a disease or even an environmental accident."

"You think about what these athletes have been through, what they've overcome," he added. "What more could you ask for? It's just a great story."

Sled hockey, like ice hockey, is played with five skaters and a goalie on each side. The players sit inches above the ice, on aluminum sleds with skate blades attached to the bottoms. Each player carries two cutoff stick blades, using the metal teeth on one end to dig into the ice and skate, while using the blade end to stickhandle and shoot.

Any spectator watching the swift, hard-hitting action is struck by the speed, agility and lightning-quick hands of these players on their sleds.

These guys are hockey players, highly skilled ones.

Spend any time talking to these athletes, and you find that the sleds and the players' individual physical challenges take a back seat to their goals and dreams as elite athletes.

Taylor Chace, 23, of Hampton Falls, N.H., probably had the most promising career as a stand-up player.

Playing for a high-level junior team in New Hampshire, Chace had his sights set on becoming a Division I player at the University of New Hampshire, before he suffered a significant spinal injury in a game at age 16. The injury left him with some paralysis in both legs. While he can walk, his career as a stand-up player was shattered.

"Each one of us has our own story," he said, following a two-hour practice last week at the Bud Bakewell Rink in Buffalo's Riverside Park. "But we're all hockey players. We may never get this chance again, so we know we have to buckle down to try to win the gold."

The Buffalo Nine spend about nine hours a week on the ice at Bud Bakewell and the Hockey Outlet Rink in Wheatfield, plus more than five hours a week with the Proformance Sports Training staff in Amherst, working on strength and conditioning.

"I'm having a blast with my teammates," Chace said. "I love coming to the rink every day. It keeps me going, mentally and physically. These guys are the most special athletes I've been around. They play the game because they absolutely love hockey. They have that burning fire in their belly."

Sean Green from Hasek's Heroes and Tim Igo from Hockey Outlet have helped provide the ice time, while John Opfer, head strength and conditioning coach from Proformance, leads the off-ice efforts.

"They've basically upgraded this from a club hockey team to an Olympic organization," Opfer said.

Four of the 15 team members come from the Buffalo area and the Buffalo Sabres Sled Hockey team: Adam Page, 17, a senior at St. Mary's High School in Lancaster who is Norm Page's son; Mike Blabac, 36,cq of Buffalo; Brad Emmerson, 24, of Amherst; and Alexi Salamone, 22, of Grand Island, who was born in Russia 14 months after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Three of the five temporary Buffalonians, including Chace, live in a house on the East Side, while the two others are staying with Blabac. They see each other at the rink and at the off-ice conditioning sessions, and some spend the evenings watching the Center Ice package of NHL games on television.

It's a steady diet of hockey, hockey, hockey.

"Having the nine people on the ice together every day is great," said Nikko Landeros, 20, of Berthoud, Colo. "We know our tendencies. We know where everybody is going to be on the ice. We know what our teammates like to do."

That means knowing who likes to shoot right- or left-handed and knowing whether a player likes to set up for a shot in the high slot in front of the goalie or closer to the boards.

Those little things can turn a team into a champion. It's all about trust.

"We're all getting our trust in each other up to 100 percent," Landeros said.

Landeros was struck by a vehicle while changing a flat tire in Colorado three years ago, at age 17. He lost both legs above the knee. Three months later, he tried sled hockey; still recovering from a broken arm, he didn't like it.

He took up the sport a year later, and now it's his passion.

"I'm a big hitter," the defenseman said, when asked about his game. "I like to let people know where I am. They don't want to come to my side of the ice. Hopefully, if they're looking down, they're going to get hit."

Having nine teammates together, day after day, living and breathing hockey, helps them push each other. Sometimes, when a player is having a tough day, the other guys prod him to fight through the blahs.

"It really makes it easier to take a big hit or do the little things on the ice, to help your friends and your teammates win," Emmerson said.

Most of the team, ranging in age from 17 to 36, has been together for five years. Now they are really together.

"It's kind of like a family," said Andy Yohe, 31, team captain, from Bettendorf, Iowa. "We fight sometimes like brothers, and then everything's good once we get back in the locker room."

These Paralympians cherish the thought of competing at the highest level, in the same venue as the Olympic Games, but one month later. But they're all about winning the gold.

Team USA won the gold medal at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, before settling for the bronze in 2006 in Turin, Italy. They bounced back to win the world championship in the Czech Republic last year.

"After having won the bronze, we've all had a good taste of what a medal's like," Yohe said. "We've basically trained for four years to win a gold."

With nine of the 15 players here, Buffalo is adding to its sled-hockey reputation.

"Buffalo is awesome," Emmerson said. "Everybody knows it's a great able-bodied hockey town. But to put ourselves on the map as a great sled-hockey town, that gives us a lot of pride and motivation."