Breaking the Ice: Sled Rangers Bring New Spirit to Youth Hockey
By Gabriel Katz
Real Good Sports visited with the New York Sled Rangers for the last game of their season. Hear from parents and the founders of New York City’s only youth sled hockey team, and find out how such a common and ordinary game can have an extraordinary impact.
New York, NY – Anger, frustration. Two emotions often channeled by athletes into the games they love – into running, jumping, tackling, kicking, and skating. These are also the words used by Clarissa Wong to describe the feelings of her son, Maximus, who at 2 1/2 years old was diagnosed with a spinal cord tumor. Max, she said, had reached all of his physical milestones up until that point and was now unable, along with the rest of his family to understand his new confinements. What would they do with an energetic youngster who could no longer move the lower half of his body without assistance?
“We needed to find a place for him to belong, a place to play,” said Wong, recalling the days and months following her son’s sudden and drastic transformation. “You can do certain things in a wheelchair, but there’s always a worry of him flipping his chair or not being able to keep up with his peers who can run or can jump.”
Perseverance and determination. These are another couple of adjectives thrown about casually by those excelling, or even attempting success in any sport. They could be applied to how Max now finds himself on the middle of the ice at Central Park’s Lasker Rink one Sunday afternoon, suited up for the New York Sled Rangers and with Wong and other parents cheering in the stands.
If you ask Bill Greenberg and Victor Calise, they too might give those words to describe the journey that resulted in a team that has been such a perfect fit for Max and 23 others. The Sled Rangers were born of a vision shared by both Greenberg and Calise that has lead them to this point, a vision that came from two different paths and two points of view, but with one great common dream.
Before the two men met, Greenberg was a concerned father trying to find an appropriate sport for Sam, his son who is now 10 years old. Sam, born with a birth defect in his spinal cord knew his options were limited and had trouble finding a sport he enjoyed. After some research, Greenberg brought his son to see an adult sled hockey team and met Calise, who was there that night with a surprise for Sam.
“I thought we were just going to go look and see, and Victor had brought a sled for Sam to try,” remembered Greenberg. “He skated for two hours that night and immediately fell in love.”
There was no team based in New York City, where the family lives, so they were referred to a team in New Jersey. But Greenberg kept in touch with Calise, and the two men developed a shared desire to bring a team to New York. As it turns out, Calise had been trying to start a youth team for quite some time, but after holding various clinics and giving presentations in schools he hadn’t had the impact he would’ve hoped for. It didn’t take long for Greenberg and Calise to realize that together they made a good team, and recruitment soon began.
“I think this combination of having a disabled adult and the parent of a disabled hockey player really makes it real for all these parents,” said Greenberg.
It was the right place and right time for both men. Calise hadn’t always had the desire to encourage others to play sled hockey – in fact, he once had to convince himself just to give the sport a chance.
It was 20 years ago that Calise sustained permanent injuries to his spinal cord after a downhill mountain-biking accident. On that day, he flipped over the handlebars of his bicycle, hitting a tree and damaging more than just his body.
“When I first got hurt it was devastating,” said Calise. “I remember I didn’t want to be part of the disabled community. But slowly, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to play able-bodied sports.”
Calise was eventually directed to a sled hockey program in Long Island, and all of his anger, frustration, and bottled up competitive nature was released. The sport, he said, became the bridge to his new life.
“Once I found that and was able to do that, I was able to take that energy and route it towards the right way,” Calise said. “Sled hockey has changed my life.”
Many of the Sled Rangers and their parents echo similar sentiments. Being part of this team has been the healing, the growth, and the outlet that nothing else had been up until that point. Greenberg sees it in his own child and hears it reaffirmed from other parents.
“I heard one of the dads say ‘I never thought that my son could play on a team, playing sports,’” Greenberg remembered. “Another one of the dads said ‘Of all my years in parenting, nothing has brought me more joy and satisfaction than hanging out with the Rangers.’”
Today, Greenberg, who founded the team in 2012 now stands amongst abandoned wheelchairs, crutches and walkers as their owners take to the ice. Each has his or her own sled, which consists of an adaptive seat with a skate blade attached to the bottom. The players use two small sticks, one edge featuring a conventional blade able to slap the puck around. The other end contains a pick which allows the players who are physically able to propel themselves in somewhat of a rowing motion (volunteers assist the those who cannot move on their own). Greenberg takes pride in the team and he will take credit for managing the operation, but when it comes to the dirty work of hitting the ice he defers to Calise, who he calls “the star of the show.”
A former Paralympian, Calise is everything a typical coach should be, which makes him all the more special. He skates alongside the team before the game, slapping the ice with his stick and yelling “I expect more out of you,” and “no shortcuts!”
“The thing that all these kids really say to me is that they don’t want to be treated special, they don’t want to be treated differently,” said Greenberg. “They want to be treated like everyone else, and so when the coach yells at them and tells them they’re not working hard enough, that’s what they want to hear.”
Calise knows that it is not always a fine line between sports and life, and that he is here not to baby his players, but rather to teach them.
“That’s powerful, that’s the way sport evolves,” Calise said of the balance between competition and caretaking, and how he fits in between. “It starts off with something recreational [and] it develops into something that’s competitive, so we blend the two. And I’m a little hard on the kids, you may hear me barking at them but the reality is I just want to see them smile.”
Greenberg can take time to enjoy the games as they’re played, but his mind never strays from what he hopes will be the continued growth of the Sled Rangers. After having begun with just an interest group of six, they now boast 24 members ranging in age from 5 to 23 years old. With six more skaters scheduled to begin practicing in the coming weeks, Greenberg’s sights are now set on starting a league in New York City, a goal he sees very much within reach.
He has ideas such as having a team in each borough, a team designated to travel outside of the city, and at least 100 participants. He said his biggest obstacles are raising awareness about the sport among parents, as well as continued fundraising. Fundraising so far has allowed the team to cover the complete costs for each player associated with equipment and ice rental. Parents shake their heads in an appreciative state of disbelief when recalling this aspect of the Sled Rangers, and when asked about it Greenberg has a similar reaction.
“I’ve spent a lot of time writing into the wee hours of the morning, writing grant proposals for various organizations,” he said.
Organizations such as the Wheelchair Sports Federation, the Challenged Athletes Foundation and many banks of different sizes have carried the team thus far, and Greenberg also credits the sponsorship by the team’s namesake, the NHL’s New York Rangers. He said that his team has been given jerseys, equipment, and even ice time at Madison Square Garden between periods earlier this year.
Today’s game ends in a loss for the Sled Rangers, and Greenberg said he can’t wait to get his team back on the ice to practice, something they have had very little time to do this year. They will break in May, at which time Greenberg and Calise encourage their players to look into various other wheelchair sports until the next hockey season begins.
As for Greenberg, he will go back to the drawing board, working towards recruitment and fundraising for his next big venture, the anticipated league. Calise will continue his work as Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, advocating for rights such as accessibility and integration for people like himself and the players.
The participants and parents of the Sled Rangers will also continue on with their lives, but what they’ve gained from the team should certainly be enough to last them until play resumes in September.
Back in the area of the bench, Lisa Baird congratulates her son Alexander, age 12 on a successful day.
“Too often I think people look at kids who have disabilities and they feel sympathy or they feel sorry for them and want to help them,” she said. “I think it’s a good impulse, but what they really want is to be part of things and be included.”
Baird, who traveled to Central Park from her home in Connecticut, feels especially attached to the community that’s been built for both her and her son amongst the Sled Ranger family. This is just the second game for Alexander, but Baird went on explain the joy felt by her son who lives with cerebral palsy. They’ve commuted here because it’s the closest team to home, and while playing this season hasn’t been easy due to the distance and this year’s bouts of inclement weather, the impact has been felt nonetheless.
“It’s great to have a game that you actually can play with other kids who have similar, more complicated or less complicated disabilities and really be part of it, not sitting on the sidelines listening to other people talk about playing,” she said. “He gets to go to school and say ‘hey I got to play hockey this weekend too.’”
For more information about the NY Sled Rangers please visit: http://www.wsfsledrangers.org
Here it from the kids in this video by John Cole: