On the ice, veterans’ disabilities vanish - The Buffalo News
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On the ice, veterans’ disabilities vanish

Michael Lindhurst lost both legs when he stepped on a land mine in Vietnam in 1969.

Brent Billings suffered a severe ligament tear in his wrist while working on an aircraft weapons system in the Persian Gulf in 2006.

Now they’re on the same team, two men from different wars and eras, 42 years apart in age.

Both play on the Buffalo Sled Vets, one of four teams in this weekend’s sled-hockey tournament at the Northtown Center in Amherst.

This is a team of a dozen local war veterans, whose wartime experiences came in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

“All of the veterans on our sled team are disabled in some way or another,” said Pamela Kaznowski, recreation therapy supervisor for Buffalo Veterans Affairs. “We have two vets who are paraplegics. We have double amputees. Some have PTSD. Some have bad wrists or legs or backs.

“But they have a common bond, all being veterans … all sharing the experiences of what they’ve been through.”

The veterans’ sled-hockey team was the 2011 brainchild of Kaznow-ski and Norm Page, the national sled-hockey representative for USA Hockey. The team, along with two stand-up Buffalo Warriors teams, enjoys strong financial support from the Buffalo Sabres Foundation, the Buffalo Sabres Alumni and National Fuel.

“For me, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, to help our wounded heroes,” Page said.

“They’re back out there playing a sport they love, and they’re having a blast. It’s a way to say thank you to them.”

Anyone else who wants to say thank you can attend this weekend’s tournament at the Northtown Center.

The teams will play at 7 and 8:30 p.m. today and at 5 and 6:30 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free.

The four participating teams are the Buffalo Sled Vets, the W.T.U. Mountain Warriors from Fort Drum, the Central New York Sled Hockey Flyers and the Buffalo Sabres intermediate sled team. The last two are not veterans’ teams.

Billings, 28, of Cheektowaga, is the youngest player on the Buffalo Sled Vets, so young that his presence once brought the team’s average age down to 58, he quipped.

But he also talked about the deep connection he has with his older teammates.

“I wasn’t boots on the ground, but it was the same type of war,” Billings said.

“You didn’t know who you were fighting. We were all far away from home, putting our lives on the line. It’s that unspoken bond, even if you didn’t serve with them.”

Lindhurst, of Wheatfield, laughed about playing such a competitive sport at age 70, with no legs.

“My wife says I’m silly for playing a kids’ game,” he said, “but I have fun. There’s a lot of camaraderie ... .”

There’s also a huge benefit for him: “It’s good for my psyche, that I can be out there and be competitive. You’re never too old, just because you have a disability.”

As a Vietnam veteran, Lindhurst is proud, not jealous, of the better treatment now afforded returning war veterans.

Some Vietnam veterans were spat on; most veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are cheered at public sporting events and other venues.

“The guys are more popular now with the general public,” Lindhurst said. “Whatever they’re getting now, we had to fight for.”

Sled hockey is just like ice hockey, played with five skaters and a goalie on each team. 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 move, while using the blade end to stickhandle and shoot.

The action is swift and hard-hitting.

For Billings, with the bad wrist, playing a demanding physical sport with seriously injured teammates keeps him from dwelling on his own disability.

“Just seeing what the other guys went through, I don’t pay attention to the pain until afterwards,” he said.

Some returning wounded veterans feel alone with their thoughts, battling their own demons.

That’s the benefit of playing on a team, with others who have been through war, who know where they’ve been.

“Sled hockey, for many of our vets, gives them the opportunity to have camaraderie with their fellow veterans that they had in the military and that they now bring onto the ice,” Kaznowski said.

“It’s a great way to bring them together and a great way to bring them back to their younger years.”

Page and Kaznowski would like to find more of the younger veterans, from the Afghanistan and Iraqi wars.

The relatively old age of this roster makes it more difficult to win tournaments, the 28-year-old Billings said.

“But we have more fun than any team,” he added.

email: gwarner@buffnews.com

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