ALBERTSON, N.Y. -- Hockey is truly for everyone.
It doesn't matter who you are, where you come from, or what physical limitations you may have. There is no gender bias, nothing against race or socioeconomic status. If you're capable, hockey is an open sport where you can develop, persevere and excel.
On Wednesday, members of the New York Islanders competed in a wheelchair hockey game against students with disabilities from the Henry Viscardi School at The Viscardi Center. The students didn't just show up for autographs and photographs. Their competitive spirit was fierce and determination immense, intangibles that helped them to a 4-3 victory thanks to a goal in the final seconds.
The Islanders were left winded and in awe.
"You can tell there was some competition out there," defenseman Scott Mayfield said. "They wanted to win. They kept saying they had to get the extra goal at the end.
"We enjoyed it, I think, more than they did, maybe. It's not an easy sport out there. It's definitely harder than what we do on the ice. My forearms are pretty tired."
The NHL, its 30 teams and the NHL Players' Association began its annual Hockey Is For Everyone month Wednesday. The program consists of a variety of community-related campaigns in support of their longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion in hockey.
In addition to a partnership with You Can Play, a nonprofit organization committed to supporting the LGBTQ community and fighting homophobia in sports, Hockey Is For Everyone this year is a first-time collaboration between the League, its teams and the NHLPA to encourage teamwork, inclusiveness and diversity in hockey at all levels for an entire month.
The Islanders were a shining example of what Hockey Is For Everyone is all about at the Viscardi Center, a private, state-supported school for children throughout Long Island and the five boroughs of New York City with severe physical disabilities.
"It's a great slogan," defenseman Calvin de Haan said. "It's a good way to try and grow the game to all walks of life. Obviously some of these children are underprivileged but they enjoy playing sports with us and trying new things. They don't take it for granted and it's a lot of fun to see them smile."
For forward Anthony Beauvillier, a rookie at age 19, it was his first such event.
"Coming here and seeing the smiles on those kids faces means everything to me," Beauvillier said. "We're [role] models for most of those kids. It's just nice giving back and taking an hour-and-a-half just to do that. It's everything for them."
Many of Viscardi's students also play basketball, soccer and whiffleball. They've hosted the New York Mets, Harlem Globetrotters and New York Cosmos, and on Wednesday they brought their 'A' game against the Islanders.
"They are very serious athletes," Viscardi president/CEO John D. Kemp said. "We play all the sports. We adapted to their needs but we play to win.
"It's fantastic that the Islanders come out here and play our Viscardi team. We're proud to play them competitively and we play to win, and this year we got lucky on a last-second breakaway and did it. It says a lot about the character, about our team and the Islanders. I'm very proud of the Islanders for doing it."
And proud of the late-game drama his students produced against Mayfield, Beauvillier, de Haan and forward Shane Prince. With the game tied 3-3 late in the third, a student named Emma made two big saves before Nettie completed a hat trick with the game-winner.
"It was a great thing," Nettie said. "It was very nerve-wracking because everyone was yelling my name. It was really nice.
"It doesn't matter if you're able bodied or if you have some difficulties. I think you can find a way to do it. The kids here, they stick the hockey sticks to their chairs or use their hands. I think it's really good that they can play."
The Islanders left with a sense of gratification and appreciation.
"It was a fairy-tale ending," de Haan said. "Win or lose, everyone had a blast."