It didn't take too long for the reality of the situation to hit members of Williamsville North's hockey team. It also didn't take long for the Spartans to run into each other, lose their balance and for them to realize the obvious.
"This is hard," one North player shouted.
The state champions were clearly in over their head last Saturday on the Olympic Rink at Northtown Center in Amherst – a rare situation for this team.
It was not because it had to adjust to playing on a difference-sized ice surface. It's because the Spartans had to adjust to playing a different kind of hockey – the sled version.
While several members of the team tired pretty quickly – like early in pregame warmups – fatigue failed to prevent them from achieving their goal during an 8-1 loss in an exhibition contest against a Buffalo Sabres sled team.
They gave teammate Matt Henry a memory of a lifetime, as there was no wiping the smile off the senior's face during the event. Henry not only got to put on the North jersey for the first time in a game, but he also flaunted his finishing skills for the Spartans since he scored their only goal.
The 17-year-old Henry, Williamsville North's team manager, has cerebral palsy. His condition, which he's had since birth after being born more than three months premature, has limited him some physically.
It hasn't prevented him from making a positive impact and being a role model. The lad who aspires to be a teacher someday is able to walk, talk and could potentially drive.His legs aren't strong enough for him to lace them up and skate with reckless abandon. But he's able to do that just fine on the sled.
He uses his arms and stick picks to push his way around the ice, fulfilling his desire to play the game as a member of the Buffalo Sabres sled hockey program's intermediate gold team. Henry helped the team win the Ontario Sledge Hockey Association championship this season.
Henry, with assists from Williamsville North athletic director Steve Ferenczy, coach Bob Rosen, Spartan players, his Sabres team and the Will North hockey boosters (who covered ice-rental cost) turned the dream idea of playing a sled game for his high school into something more: A life experience that had everyone cheering, especially with 1 minute, 14 seconds left in the second period.
That's when Henry fired a hard, low shot from near the left hash mark into the far corner of the net. The goal not only prompted a bench-clearing celebration by the Spartans but led to his Sabres teammates joining in the giant pile, too.
"It's pretty unreal," Henry said. "To be the manager and win a state championship with them it was a dream come true, but to get this (done) was unreal."
That fabulous feeling only got better from there.It's a North tradition that any player who scores his first goal takes part in a postgame ceremony in the sanctity of the team's locker room.
There, the honoree receives the puck he potted and must stand up to deliver an impromptu speech to his teammates. They in turn ask him what happened on the goal during the monologue. Then in true no-one-is-bigger-than-the-team fashion, they all boo him. Of course, laughter follows.
It's a unique tradition for sure. But, if that doesn't scream "you're one of us," then nothing will.
"We're just excited to do this for him," said senior defenseman Matt Jeffries, who assisted on Henry's goal. "He's incredible."
"The great thing about hockey is everybody can play," Rosen said. "All the values of friendship and team camaraderie, that's what this is all about."That's why once Henry pitched his idea of setting up a sled game to Ferenczy in December 2015, it didn't seem outlandish. It picked up steam after Rosen saw Henry's sled team practice following a North workout, according to Matt's father David – an assistant coach for his son's team. It further picked up momentum with Henry joining the Spartans as their manager this season.
Henry's job: Set up pucks for pregame warmups on the bench, fill water bottles and make himself available to take care of anything players or coaches needed so that they could focus on the process of winning games.
"He was part of our team," said Rosen. "Everybody has different roles. It's just not what goes on on the ice. Matt had a role on our team and was there. He was a great teammate and great part of our team."
For the record, Henry may have a disability but doesn't view himself as disabled. Yes, he has his challenges, but he views himself as a normal teen.
Neither do the Spartans teammates, who he's known his whole life -- peers who view Henry as one of them because he is.
Saturday's proof of that.
"This was huge for him," David Henry said.