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Inspirational athletes take to the ice in sled hockey

Cheryl Hagen/WBFO News

Sled hockey teams from the U.S., Canada and Russia will square off at HarborCenter in late November in preparation for next year’s World Sled Hockey Championship here in Buffalo. The tournament is just one indication of the increase in sled hockey's popularity and inspiration the athletes who take part in it are providing others.  

"He was out on the ice and skating around. I'm thinking he's actually playing hockey. While, at the end of that game, one of the kids actually punched one of the other kids in line when they were shaking hands and I thought to myself, It's hockey!"

That’s Norm Page describing his son Adam’s first ever sled hockey game. Adam was born with Spina Bifida and became infatuated with hockey when his dad took him to a Sabres game at age 3.

Adam was playing sled hockey by the time he was 6. Now, 16 years later, Adam has racked up the awards including two gold medals at the Paralympics. His first gold medal came in Vancouver in 2010 and his second in Sochi earlier this year.

“It’s really just given me something to be a part of," says Adam. "To be around guys just like myself, with the same disabilities... to be able to talk about those things that maybe other people don't understand. It's pretty cool."

While Adam came to the sport at an early age, another Buffalo area native, Paul Schaus, began playing after losing his legs in Afghanistan.  While at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, Paul was able to watch Adam win gold in 2010 and he knew he wanted to be there.

"I got hurt in 2009," Paul noted. "I remember the games in Vancouver were going on in 2010. I actually got to watch some of that while I was in Walter Reed. To see how those guys played, Adam on the team, and some of those other guys on that 2010 team... to see them play and to see where I could go with the sport and to see the skill level I could get to, just really made me want to work hard to get on that national team."

Sled hockey allows individuals with physical challenges to play ice hockey. Players are seated on sleds and maneuver on the ice using two shorter hockey sticks with metal picks on one end rather than skating.  The majority of the rules remain the same, but Paul, who grew up playing ice hockey at Bud Bakewell in Buffalo, says there are a few differences.

"Sled hockey is 100 percent more difficult out there," according to Paul. "It's hockey, but you're using all upper body to propel yourself and control the puck with your hands too."

Sled Hockey has been around Western New York for more than 20 years, but Norm, Adam and Paul all agree the sport is gaining momentum now, the competition is getting tougher. There are five sled hockey teams in Western New York alone and seven sled accessible rinks here including HarborCenter. Aside from his fatherly duties, Norm is a USA Sled Hockey representative. Norm attributes the rise in sled hockey’s popularity to the coverage the Paralympic team received leading up to and during the games in Sochi this year.

"It was broadcast live on NBC and then also the great exposure that we got from PBS doing 'Ice Warriors' was a huge plus for us as well," says Norm. "It really brought to light these athletes, which is really what they are... Talk to any of them and they don't really want to be concerned about their disability. It's about being an athlete and being a hockey player."

Sled hockey programs are now starting up across the country – in places, Norm, says that you would never imagine.

"We're in cities now like Birmingham, Alabama and Louisville, Kentucky and Wichita, Kansas... all these different places that aren't even typically stand up hockey programs... we have sled programs," according to Norm.

It appears Buffalo may be leading the way when it comes to spreading the word about the sport. When the Paralympic team was in Sochi, they were asked if Buffalo might be interested in hosting the world championships.

"They approached us and said 'We heard this really cool thing happening in Buffalo and this gentleman named Mr. Pegula... He's building this thing there that we heard about is incredible. Do you think they'd be interested in holding a world championship?'  I said, 'I don't know but I am going to go home and ask," Norm said.

They did ask and the answer was yes.  The Sled Hockey World Championship will be held at HarborCenter late next April with eight nations vying for the coveted gold medal. A new challenge for Adam and Paul, something Adam says he has always faced by focusing on the task at hand rather than his disability.

"I really felt like I was just a kid growing up. I never saw myself as different," Adam tells us. "I think giving them something to be a part of, something for them to do, really helps your mindset and helps them get over the obstacle they're facing in everyday life."

PBS will air a follow up to its’ original program featuring the U-S Paralympic Sled Hockey team’s gold medal win in Sochi. Look for Ice Warriors: U-S-A Sled Hockey on Sunday, November 16 at 11 p.m. on WNED-TV.