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Band of brothers glistening with gold <br> Paralympians bond on and off the ice as sled hockey champs

They call themselves a brotherhood, a band of 15 who have grown together as teammates, learning to love and trust one another, both on and off the ice.

But as individuals, the members of the U.S. Paralympic sled hockey team carry their own personalized snapshots of those giddy moments after Saturday's 2-0 triumph over Japan for the gold medal in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Sometimes, the littlest things stick in your memory.

Goalie Mike Blabac, from Buffalo, remembers how the team messed up singing the national anthem at the medal ceremony.

"We were so hopped up on adrenaline that we were zipping through it, going much faster than the music," he said. "So we had to slow down a couple of times."

Talented forward Alexi Salamone, from Grand Island, remembers getting his gold medal and contrasting that feeling with the disappointment of having won a bronze medal four years ago in Torino, Italy.

"I was tearing up," he said of the gold medal being draped around his neck. "Every emotion was going through me. I remember what happened in Torino. I couldn't believe we were actually receiving gold medals."

And Adam Page, the 18-year-old forward who's a senior at St. Mary's High School in Lancaster, won't ever forget the moment when he first wore gold.

"I tried to find my parents in the stands and wave at them," he said. "I could see my dad tearing up, and it was one of the first times I cried, too.

"I thought of how close we were as a team all year. We got closer and closer as the year went on, and it was great to be there with your team."

Those three players returned home from Vancouver late Monday night.

They got together Tuesday in the principal's office at St. Mary's, rubbing sleep from their eyes, to reflect on the wonderful but draining gold medal experience.

The sled hockey team has a true Western New York flavor, with four players, including forward Brad Emmerson from Amherst. Five other players moved to Buffalo for up to a year before the Paralympics to train, practice and hang out together.

Some called them the Buffalo Nine, representing 60 percent of the team. That experience helped separate this team from the other top squads in Vancouver.

"I think it all comes back to the six months or so when we had almost the whole team here practicing together [in Buffalo] and being with each other," said Page, the second-youngest player on the team. "It made us so much closer. If we didn't have that, it wouldn't be as strong a bond.

"That's the feeling we all have, that we'd do anything for anybody. So when we went out on the ice, that made you work so much harder."

Blabac found another way to express it. He had two out-of-towners staying with him in the last few months before the Paralympics. That struck him and his fiancee, Kerri Tolokonsky, as they left the airport Monday night.

"It was hard coming home last night," he said. "It was quiet. It was hitting us that everyone was gone."

This team was so tight that one of its few regrets was about the last three players cut from the squad.

"We lost some brothers along the way," Blabac said.

The players range in age from 17 to 43. So in many ways, the family metaphor works, whether you call the veterans "father figures" or "big brothers."

Salamone, 22, talked about what Blabac, 36, the backup goalie, has meant to him, as a mentor.

"We're all brothers, but he's my best friend," he said. "I look up to him as my big brother. He's probably the best thing that happened to the Buffalo group and the Buffalo Nine. He's our man. He doesn't need an 'A' [assistant captain] or 'C' [captain] on his jersey. He just knows that we look up to him."

These guys are jocks, all of whom came back from some kind of disability.

Page was born with spina bifida. Blabac was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2001. Salamone, born with deformed legs in Russia 14 months after the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, had both legs amputated at age 4.

Doctors said Salamone never would walk with his prosthetic legs. But he wrestled at Grand Island High School, without the prosthetics, and even skated with his prosthetics.

"When I heard people say, 'You're not going to do this, or you can't do that,' I just didn't pay any attention to it," he said. "I knew there was a drive in me to accomplish anything I wanted to be."

Blabac said he remains a "little numb" about what they all accomplished.

"These guys had a lot of doors slammed in their faces," he said. "I like to say that when one door closes, a window opens. All these guys have at least crawled through the window."

This is a true team, molded by head coach Ray Maluta of Rochester. They talk about picking one another up when any of them is having a bad day. They say nobody cares who scores the goals and gets the plaudits. And while virtually all the players might want to return, they know the reality, that all 15 guys probably won't be together again.

Except at reunions and special occasions, such as weddings.

"Mine is in October," Blabac said. "I'll try to get a bigger hall."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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