For Young Disabled Athletes, a Chance to Glide, and Compete, on the Ice

The players arrived at Lasker Rink in Central Park on Saturday morning with the help of wheelchairs, walkers and crutches. Many had to be helped into their pads and then lifted into the bucket seats of narrow aluminum sleds with skate-blades on the bottom.

Dragging them to the edge of the rink and lifting them onto the ice required real effort, but once on the smooth frozen surface, these so-called disabled players were free. They glided around, inches above the ice, chasing pucks and one another.

The players — the New York Rangers youth sled hockey team, which was started in October as the city’s first organized ice hockey team for disabled children – were facing off on Saturday against the Philadelphia Hammerheads sled hockey team on the rink on the northern end of Central Park.

“Get out there,” exhorted their coach, Victor Calise, 40, as he clapped his players on their shoulders and rapped their sleds to fire them up. Soon they were banging their sticks on the ice and chanting “Let’s go, Rangers,” with the liveliest cheers coming from Mr. Calise, the commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.

“The whole idea is to get them involved and show them what disabled athletes can do,” said Mr. Calise, who was not driven to the game in a big city-owned vehicle with aides hovering around him. Instead, he rolled up by himself in his wheelchair an hour before the game to greet his players. He hopped into his own sled, pushed himself onto the rink and began smacking his stick on the ice shouting, “Rangers, bring it in.” He lined the players up against the boards and assigned them positions.

The team’s 18 players are 5 to 18 years old — 3 are girls – and all have limited or no mobility in their lower bodies because of injuries or conditions like spina bifida or cerebral palsy.

“Some of these kids, and their parents, never knew they could play team sports,” said Bill Greenberg, an investor from Greenwich Village whose son Sam, 9, cannot move his lower body because of a birth defect in his spinal cord.

Mr. Greenberg worked with Mr. Calise on organizing a city team to play similar clubs in the Northeast. Now the Rangers play games every other Saturday at Lasker Rink, and are scheduled to move in March to the indoor World Ice Arena in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. The arena has boards, entranceways and surfaces that make it accessible for sled hockey, whose rules and equipment are similar to regular ice hockey but whose players each use two shortened hockey sticks. One end is used to handle the puck, and the other end is equipped with a sharpened tip so that the players can use them to propel the sled with arm-thrusts.

Since equipment and ice time are expensive, the Rangers secured sponsors, including the Challenged Athletes Foundation, the New York Rangers professional hockey team and the Wheelchair Sports Federation. Ice time is donated by the Lasker Rink and by the city’s parks department, where Mr. Calise worked for six years as the accessibility coordinator before being appointed to his current post in May.

Mr. Calise, who grew up in Ozone Park, Queens, playing roller hockey, was paralyzed from the chest down after a mountain biking accident.

“Initially, I didn’t want to live anymore, and I found sled hockey and it changed my life,” he said. He made the 1996 national team and began playing around the world. He played in the 1998 Winter Paralympic Games in Nagano, Japan, as a member of the U.S.A. Paralympic Sled Hockey team.

Mr. Calise does not coddle his players and expects them to play hard, like any competitive athlete. During Saturday’s game, he yelled at his squad, “I need everybody to skate harder.”

A goal by Christian Stieler, 18, of Marine Park, Brooklyn, kept the Rangers in the game, as did sharp goaltending by Eddie Friedman, 16, of Sheepshead Bay, a student at Brooklyn Tech High School who has cerebral palsy.

At one point Francisco Olivares, 10, tipped over in his sled, but once righted by a volunteer, he hustled back into the action. Francisco, a fourth-grader at Public School 291 in the Bronx, lacks mobility in his lower body because of the effects of spina bifida. He had been depressed and inactive before joining the team, said his brother Erick Olivares, 21.

“He was sitting around watching TV and just feeling very limited,” Mr. Olivares said. “Now he feels stronger, and every time he comes here, he’s happy because he’s with other kids in the same situation.”

The critical goal was scored for the Rangers by Joanna Nieh, a 10-year-old from Manhattan with spina bifida, who had left her pink crutches on the bench and was hustling on left wing. Her goal tied the game at 3-3, which was the final score.

“If they can do this now,’’ Mr. Calise said, “they don’t see their disability.”

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