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FOR DOUBLE AMPUTEE, THE GOAL IS TO NET A PLACE ON NATIONAL SLED HOCKEY TEAM

Some people might look askance at Mike DiPasquale, who dreams of launching an international sports career at the none-too-tender age of 31.

DiPasquale, however, is used to those looks. A legless goaltender does tend to pique the curiosity, after all.

If that sounds harsh, so be it. DiPasquale is OK with his reality. An auto accident 16 months ago left him with stumps where his legs used to be, but it didn't rob him of his desire.

DiPasquale is a double amputee, yes. But is he handicapped? Not in his mind. Is he bitter? Not the least. Is he looking for sympathy? Don't count on it.

And the folks who were shocked when he strapped himself atop a sled and played hockey -- just months after emerging from a lengthy coma -- will be equally astonished if he realizes his dream of making the U.S. national sled hockey team and, ultimately, the 2002 Paraolympic Games.

"Everyone is surprised that, number one, I'm not dead, and number two, I'm not a pari- or quadriplegic," DiPasquale said. "But you can't dwell on all the negatives. You gotta go with the positive stuff.

"It sounds really terrible, and it is -- but it could've been a lot worse. You kind of learn to shrug your shoulders a little and put it in the back of your mind. You look forward instead of back."

And forward, right now, is the selection of the team that will represent the United States at the upcoming world championships. Then, a little further down the road, the Paraolympics.

"I have seen his confidence grow," says his coach, Rich DeGlopper, who also just happens to be president of the United States Sled Hockey Association. Sled hockey is played with the same rules as ice hockey, but the physically challenged players -- amputees, paraplegics, those with spina bifida -- propel themselves around the ice atop specially designed sleds, with two sticks serving the dual purposes of providing propulsion and game play.

DeGlopper likes DiPasquale's chances for making the national team.

"What makes Mike DiPasquale so unique," DeGlopper said, is his attitude. "Most people (following a traumatic accident) tend to withdraw for a couple of years, till they learn how to deal with it. You can be very bitter about it, but (Mike) looks at it as 'make the best of it' rather than 'feel sorry for me.'

"In less than six months he went from never having played the game to fill-in starter for a game versus the Canadian national team that was a silver medalist at Nagano. And he did a sensational job."

DeGlopper says one of the big reasons DiPasquale has enjoyed such instant success was the attention he got from a friend and neighbor after his accident.

Mike Lindhurst lives only a short distance from DiPasquale in Wheatfield, and the two had briefly met through their involvement with competing volunteer fire companies: Lindhurst with St. Johnsburg and DiPasquale with Adams.

When Lindhurst heard of DiPasquale's Sept. 23, 1998, accident, he stepped forward to help.

Unfortunately, DiPasquale was in a medically induced coma, a state in which he would remain for a full month.

DiPasquale's legs had been effectively severed above the knees when a speeding car pinned him against his dry-cleaning delivery truck.

"A little old lady blinded by the sun kind of lost her bearings, swerved around a school bus and hit me," DiPasquale explains, quite matter of factly.

The accident occurred in front of his Buffalo dry-cleaning store.

"She hit me going 40 miles per hour," DiPasquale said, "and pinned me between her big four-door and my pickup truck. Her car was crushed all the way up to the windshield. It was a pretty hard hit . . . and there was nothing to absorb the impact."

Doctors worked feverishly to try to save his legs but couldn't.

"They saved my rear end, is what they did," DiPasquale said. He was hospitalized in Erie County Medical Center for six weeks after the crash.

"It definitely was an experience," he recalls.

When he awoke from the coma, his new friend, Mike Lindhurst, was there -- Mike Lindhurst, with his two prosthetic legs -- compliments of a Vietnamese land mine on Independence Day 1969.

Lindhurst was there to tell DiPasquale that it wasn't the end of the world. And DiPasquale listened and took heed.

"You always learn from someone else," Lindhurst said. "No matter how bad off you are, there's always someone worse. He had no one to learn from, so I wanted to help."

Help, the same way the rows upon rows of amputees had helped each other back at that veterans' hospital in 1969, Lind-hurst recalls.

Lindhurst said there were 250 amputees with him when he was in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington back then. "But the support groups are not (available locally) because there are so few (amputees) around. The ones who are are mostly older, with medical problems."

Lindhurst recalls that DiPasquale's spirits were "pretty good" when he first came out of the coma. He was still at the 'Why did it happen to me?' stage, but everyone goes through that. I told him what to expect, because I'd been through it."

The fact that DiPasquale's legs were lost above the knee makes "a huge difference," Lindhurst said, because he has much less leverage for balance.

"He still struggles," Lindhurst said. "I don't sugar-coat anything, because it is a real bear. You just have to overcome it and move onto something else."

With a nudge from Lindhurst, DiPasquale was convinced to visit a sled hockey team practice in early 1999. While there, he picked up the goalie's helmet, so DeGlopper asked if he'd like to give it a shot.

With a little more coaxing, DiPasquale was on the ice, guarding the four-by-six foot cage atop his customized sled. And he's been there ever since, gaining strength and confidence in his bid to backstop the national team.

"I really think he has a legitimate chance," Lindhurst says of his friend. "I hope he makes it."

Competition for spots on the team is keen, DeGlopper said, but DiPasquale has been putting in the time and effort to have a real chance.

When he thinks of how far DiPasquale has come, DeGlopper can't help but think back to that first night, when he threw a wet-behind-the-ears rookie to the wolves -- never realizing he was only 40-some days off his accident, his leg stumps not yet fully healed.

"(Afterward) I thought, 'Oh my God, we just fired pucks at this guy. I need my head examined!' "

It's been a long, grueling road for DiPasquale, not to mention an expensive trip. The amateur players foot most of the costs for equipment, travel, meals and the like themselves. But he's just glad to have had the chance.

"I look at it as having gotten a huge break that not too many people get," DiPasquale said of the fact he wasn't killed in the accident.

"You can either loathe in a little pity world, or put the pieces back together, and I chose the latter. I'm not bitter, or else I would be a pretty miserable person to be around."

On the contrary, DiPasquale now practices what he learned from his friend Lindhurst, counseling fellow amputees.

"It could happen to any one of us on any given day," DeGlopper said. "In that sense, he's been a great role model for everybody, what he's done for himself and helping others."

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