Speedster Alexi Salamone, of Grand Island, scored the winning goal in the 2010 Vancouver Paralympic Games that earned a gold medal for the USA Sled Hockey Team.
Friday, the Chernobyl-born player who started in sled hockey at age 16 took part in a scrimmage at the Northtown Center in Amherst. It marked the first training camp of the season for the national team, which is determined to defend its gold medal in the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia.
“Russia wants to beat us. Canada wants to knock us off. The Czechs do, too,” said Matt Trevor, team manager. “We’re Team USA. We want to be the best, but everybody wants to knock us off.”
Sled hockey is a swift, hard-hitting sport defined by the same speed, balance and hard shots of traditional ice hockey. The difference is that many of the sled athletes have lost the use of their legs due to disease, injury or birth defect.
Three of the 18 team members are from Western New York. The rest come from across the country, including California, Colorado, Texas, Arizona, Missouri and Florida.
Forward Adam Page, 21, of Lancaster, was born with spina bifida, a spinal defect that rendered him paralyzed from the knees down.
Former Marine Corps Cpl. Paul Schaus, of North Tonawanda, was wounded by a land mine while serving in Afghanistan in 2009. After losing both legs, Schaus tried out for and made the team last summer.
“I grew up playing the sport,” said Schaus, 24. “Sled hockey is different, but it’s still hockey. It takes more skill. Instead of having your legs, you have to move and puck handle and shoot with your arms.”
Salamone, 26, was adopted by a Grand Island family as a child. An athlete at heart, he was born with deformed legs 14 months after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. Both legs were amputated above the knee when he was 4.
Core strength is critical for all of these athletes, who range in age from 15 to 35. Sitting inches off the ice on small sleds, they carry two short hockey sticks – one end with jagged metal to dig into the ice to maneuver, the other end a conventional hockey blade to pass, shoot and handle the puck.
Salamone trains on his hand cycle at least three days a week, riding 15 miles each day on the bike path along River Road. Just this Monday, he took a tumble when his cycle hit a pothole.
“It’s fun, though,” he said. “You’re outside in the fresh air. Once you get that forward motion going and you have the thoughts in your head that you’re going through each period. You get through it, and you really feel great.”
Page works with a personal trainer at the Northtown Center. The Sochi Games in 2014 will be his second paralympics.
“Vancouver was my first time, and I was just thankful to be there,” he said. “I’m really focused on winning the gold medal. After you’ve been on the team for so long, though, you have to find a drive that will keep you going.”
Page started in sled hockey at age 6 with the former Niagara Challengers. His career goal is to be a coach or to work in the front office of a professional hockey team like the Buffalo Sabres. He is a junior at Medaille College.
Page, who uses a wheelchair for long distances and crutches for shorter treks, tells his personal story as a motivational speaker around the country, according to his father and team backer, Norman Page.
“It amazes me how much he can make a difference in the lives of disabled children,” said his father. “But now he is motivating corporate America by speaking to groups of businessmen.”
National team coach Jeff Sauer has impressive credentials, leading the University of Wisconsin Badgers to two NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey championships during his tenure. He was honored last year with the National Hockey League’s Lester Patrick Trophy for outstanding service.
Practices for the USA National Sled Hockey Team continue today from 10:30 to 11:45 a.m. and 4 to 5:30 p.m. They are free and open to spectators.