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SPECIAL TEAM; Buffalo Thunder hockey club opens eyes while providing people with disabilities some ice time

Lined up across the ice, neatly stuffed into brown paper bags, the jerseys sat for 10-15 grueling minutes.

The Buffalo Thunder players knew they were getting new sweaters -- they just had no clue what to expect. Some 20 yards away, they stared down the bags. Coaches gave them the green light, they skated over, ripped the bags open with a Christmas-morning adrenaline rush and couldn't believe their eyes.

"These uniforms are like the Sabres made a clone team," the Thunder's Chris Polisoto said later at the North Buffalo Ice Rink. "If Tyler Myers was here, he'd love every minute of this."

Stanley Cup exuberance ensued. Buffalo's special needs hockey team hoisted the blue and gold jerseys above their heads. Each one, the product of fundraising and donations, had their name and number stitched on the back with a Thunder logo on the front. Parents watched on from the other side of the glass. And emotions spilled over.

This team, created three years ago, represents far more than hockey.

"I'm crying," said hockey mom Mary Lou Bryant, "because I know how much those jerseys mean to them."

All players -- 21 males and females aged 10-34 -- came to play the same sport their siblings do. But in return, they've received much, much more. With challenges ranging from Down Syndrome to autism to learning disorders, the Thunder players have developed friendships they simply never had before.

It all began in 2008 with the Steffan family. Mike and Pam Steffan used to drive their 24-year-old son, Ryan, to Rochester every weekend where he played for a special needs hockey team. Ryan, who has Down Syndrome, lives and breathes hockey as a volunteer manager for the Buffalo State team.

The Steffans knew there had to be more kids just like him, more kids that just want a shot.

They were right. Within days of posting flyers, phone calls multiplied and the Buffalo Thunder was born. Each Sunday, the team meets at the North Buffalo or Hyde Park rinks for practice.

"It turned out to be more than just ice hockey for all of us," Pam said. "The kids developed friendships they just didn't have."

Each player took a unique path here.

There's Peter Rich, the team's senior member at 34 years old. While at Orchard Park High School, Rich's grades began to plunge. Nobody knew why. After several psychological tests, Rich's family discovered he suffered from a rare learning disability that only shows up between the ages of 17 and 21.

From then on, he had trouble fitting in socially. Rich cycled through multiple jobs. Nothing stuck. And in his free time, he was "sitting at home, kind of doing nothing," Peter Rich Sr. said.

That all changed with the Thunder. Suddenly, he wanted to play every sport possible. Suddenly, Rich was traveling state-wide for softball, Special Olympics hockey, bowling and basketball events year-round.

"We've got conflicts now," said dad, chuckling at the irony. "Where do you want to go?"

There's Nick Cacciatore, a 12-year-old with autism. Nick cannot speak, communicating solely through sign language. Like Rich, he was trapped in a social shell of his own. Nick joined the Thunder, developed a close relationship with volunteer coach and Sweet Home High School federation hockey player John Rein and did a 180. Dad sees happiness in his son he didn't see before.

"When you see his eyes, and they start to glow," Frank Cacciatore says, "you know what's going on."

And there's Matthew Craft, Bryant's 23-year-old son. She remembers Matthew, who has both learning disorders and cystic fibrosis, taking shelter inside his bedroom all day. He played video games nonstop. Admitted Bryant, "He has never really had friends."

These days? Well, just take a look at his dad's garage door. It's scarred and dented from Craft's wicked slap shots, tangible signs of a complete transformation. Before joining the Thunder, Craft had no desire to go to college. Now he's looking into a program at Buffalo State.

"It's been fun," Craft said. "It's good to meet new people every day."

For an hour, from afar, it's impossible to tell that any player is handicapped in any way. Behind their new jerseys and masks, they do everything any other team would. Players glide around cones, conduct shootouts and practice drill to drill. The Thunder has played games against teams from Detroit to Boston and non-handicapped teams in Western New York in non-contact games.

Afterward, still sporting those glossy uniforms, players leave the ice. Standing near each other, Polisoto and Ryan Steffan are grinning ear-to-ear. And Polisoto, the team's resident statistician, channels his inner analyst.

"He's a speedster," Polisoto says, "and I'm a playmaker."

Steffan -- his face beaming red -- breaks into laughter. They grab their hockey bags and exit the arena, smiling the entire time. Why? Because next weekend they're heading to Detroit to play. And the week after that, well, they'll play again.

This team has changed their lives.

"It's the most fantastic time of my life," Polisoto said. "I always grew up watching the Buffalo Sabres and the great game of hockey but to play it is a whole other leap into the universe."

e-mail: tdunne@buffnews.com

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