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Wheelchair hockey

by David Hochman / New York Islanders
What started as a special visit during the holiday season, evolved into a bigger and more unique April hockey game.

When Islanders forward Zenon Konpka visited the Henry Viscardi school in December, he brought the students bags and boxes full of Islanders goodies. When he strolled into their gym though, the children greeted him with a wheelchair and hockey stick, ready for a game.

After an invigorating afternoon, Konopka could hardly be dragged out of the gym. He had so much fun that he vowed to come back for a rematch, next time with more of his teammates.

The New York Islanders played wheelchair hockey at Henry Viscardi School on Monday, April 4, 2011. Click photo to view photo gallery.
And so the months moved along as the Islanders successes on the ice continued to grow. By April 4, they held one of the best records in the NHL since they visited those children during the holidays. Konopka and the Islanders never forgot about those kids at the Viscardi School though. Even after a morning practice focused on conditioning, eight players drove themselves to one of their most enjoyable games all season.

“We had a lot of fun out there,” Konopka told Islanders TV after the intense contest. “The kids looked like they had a lot of fun, so it’s a win-win situation.”

The school has almost 200 students ranging from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. More than half of them packed the gym to cheer on their classmates and heroes.

“Kids are kids, no matter where they are or what their ability level,” said Patrice Kuntzler, Executive Director of the Henry Viscardi School. “This means a lot to the kids to see their heroes come visit them in their environment and play hockey in wheelchairs. The Islanders really are our school’s heroes. We have a long relationship with the Islanders and we’re so happy they came today.”

The long-lasting relationship seems to be growing deeper with a number of young Islanders standouts joining the game. John Tavares, Matt Moulson, Josh Bailey, Blake Comeau, PA Parenteau, Matt Martin and Micheal Haley all jumped at the chance to play.

“Z and PA told me about the school and the kids here,” Tavares said. “I heard how fun this was last year and it’s great to get out here and helps the kids out. It’s really good to see all the kids with big smiles on their faces.”

After the game, all eight players made the rounds, walking around the boisterous crowd and signing autographs for each student in attendance. They took pictures with anyone who asked. They ruled the school for a day. That interaction, before, during and after the game, was paramount.

John Tavares signs autographso for students at Henry Viscardi School on Monday, April 4, 2011.
“The time these players give means so much,” said John Kemp, the President & CEO of Abilities!, the program that operates the Henry Viscardi School. “They understand we’re all part of the fabric of the community and times like this help the kids realize their heroes can and will be a part of their lives.”

Not that the score matters, but the Henry Viscardi team won 4-3 in sudden death. Which may have been the perfect ending.

“It was a tough game out there,” Konopka said. “PA gave up a weak goal after John Tavares turned it over. They got us this time, but we’ll be back next year.”

Not that it matters who won. It’s not like the Islanders needed an excuse to set up a rematch. This game sounds like it has tradition written all over it.
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