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Film puts sled-hockey players in spotlight ; Follows 2 area athletes both on and off the ice

A different kind of movie is coming to a downtown Buffalo multiplex this holiday season.

It's called "Hockey Courage," a 90-minute documentary focusing on the families of two local teenage hockey players -- Adam Page of Lancaster and Mason Newbold of Lockport.

The movie traces the personal stories of Newbold and Page and their attempts to make the U.S. national sled hockey team, first in 2009 and then again earlier this year.

But it also weaves those stories around larger themes -- about young people playing hockey, about athletes with disabilities, about families sacrificing for their sons' and daughters' sports goals.

The movie will be shown at the Market Arcade Theater downtown, at 4, 6 and 8 p.m., from Friday through Dec. 30.

Three weeks ago, producer and director John M. Hannon, a University at Buffalo associate professor in entrepreneurship, showed his film to the U.S. junior sled-hockey team, including Newbold.

"Each of you, every sled-hockey player, has a unique story," Hannon remembered telling them. "These guys on the screen are speaking for you. We could be doing a story about any one of you."

Even the movie's trailer shows some powerful visual images.

Moviegoers will see muscular athletes from behind, wheeling their wheelchairs, on their way to hockey practice.

They'll see 18-year-old Page, pulling his hockey equipment with his left hand while using a crutch with his right arm.

They'll see war veterans with prosthetic legs.

And they'll see Newbold, 19, using his hockey sled to propel his wheelchair.

The strongest message might be that these athletes' disabilities are shown in a hockey context. Thus the title "Hockey Courage."

"This is a hockey movie," insisted Hannon, a longtime hockey player and coach who grew up in Clinton, N.Y. "To me, sled-hockey players embody all the good associated with hockey -- the dedication, the physical play, teamwork, the love of the game."

The courage comes from the physical challenges these players face. A sled-hockey locker room is filled with players who were born with spina bifida, lost legs in a train accident, developed muscular dystrophy or lost a leg to disease.

"For them to play hockey, it takes courage," Hannon said. "They're vulnerable to being injured. Some of these players have had their shunts repaired or replaced a dozen times."

These players all have well-developed upper bodies, to help propel their roughly 4-foot-long sleds along the ice. Sitting only inches off the ice, they carry two sawed-off hockey sticks; one end, armed with metal teeth, digs into the ice to move the sled, while the other end has a regular hockey blade, allowing players to stick-handle, pass and shoot with either arm.

The product is a lightning-fast, aggressive game. In other words, it's hockey.

Hannon is a Renaissance man, a professor, novelist, film producer and hockey coach who founded the Buffalo Prospects, an elite summer program based at the Northtown Center of Amherst. He cut his own teeth on hockey, growing up in Clinton, home of the Clinton Comets team associated with the movie "Slap Shot."

His crew -- including photographer/editor William Bodkin, creative director Stan Friesen and assistant editor Erich Waldorf -- made the movie for under $50,000.

The two young players, both born with spina bifida, are the real stars of this movie. But their families also share in the credits, because, above all, this is a movie about people, not about hockey or disabilities. That's why Hannon calls it a movie that any families involved with youth sports can enjoy watching together -- as a family.

"The lessons in courage, the lessons in perseverance, the lessons in physical and mental toughness that we try to instill in our kids, these guys have it," Hannon said.

The movie follows the triumphs and disappointments of the two teens, also revealing their different personalities. Hannon called Newbold more of a smiling, happy-go-lucky young man, while Page seems more serious, at least about hockey.

"I'm just hoping people watch the movie, and they can see that people with disabilities can do stuff that other people can do," said Newbold, who attends Niagara County Community College. "They're not limited because of their disability."

Page's father, Norm, likes the movie's message for young people dealing with a disability.

"Obviously, we've been blessed with Adam and how he's been able to touch some other lives," he said. "We want to do that with this movie, to help kids realize that whether it's an injury, a disability or a birth defect, that their life can be full and complete."

In the first tryout, Page, now at Medaille College, makes the team, while Newbold doesn't. The film shows the contrast between the two players, one going on to the glory of the Paralympics, the other vowing to work harder to make the team the following year.

Then come the 2010 tryouts for the national team.

"I think the point is that although they're different, they're both at peace with who they are," Hannon said. "They're each taking their own path, in hockey and in life.

"And hockey is helping them prepare to tackle life."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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