-- Two teams of special-needs hockey players fanned out from the NHL Store Powered by Reebok in midtown Manhattan Friday to visit all 54 rinks in New Jersey to spread awareness and garner support for disabled athletes as part of their "Everybody Skates New Jersey" initiative.
The initiative is part of this weekend's Hockey Weekend Across America.
The athletes had gathered at the NHL Store with NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and NHL Live! host E.J. Hradek to celebrate and share their stories about how special-needs hockey programs have improved their lives.
Several called hockey "the ultimate physical and occupational therapy," and described how the sport had lifted them emotionally.
The crowd was hushed as retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Joseph L. Bowser recounted the 2004 attack on Camp Anaconda in Balad, Iraq, when he was injured, causing the amputation of his right leg below the knee. Given a choice of living with a painful, damaged right leg that would have required lifelong pain medication, Bowser chose the amputation.
"I wanted to be able to play hockey again," Bowser said. "The doctors all knew my whole objective was to get back on the ice again. When I did, I felt normal again. When you get on the ice, everyone forgets about the disability and it's all about putting the puck in the net.
"When I was told I made the U.S. Amputee Team, that was one of my biggest thrills. I thank everybody here and thank the USA."
"There are outlets for those who are disabled. Hockey is the ultimate way to get people back in the right frame of mind." -- Andrew Schwartz
J.J. O'Connor, chair of the USA Hockey Disabled Section and general manager of the 2010 U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team, said the underlying principle is "just because some of us have a disability you can see doesn't mean (we) can't play hockey or be great athletes."
O'Connor recalled the 2002 Team USA sled-hockey gold medal, when the Americans rallied from the lowest-rated seed.
"The only reason we were in the tournament was because we were the host country," O'Connor said. "That was our 'Miracle On Ice.' That was the Cinderella story for that team. Now, the USA is No. 1 in the world. We've won the last three tournaments."
Tim Jones, a member of the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team from Mt. Ephraim, N.J., said "we have to prove we're still No. 1," at the upcoming 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, March 13-20, in Vancouver. The 15 players on the team play for nine different American sled-hockey programs and were selected from the 47 players who tried out last July.
The National Hockey League, through its Hockey Is For Everyone initiative, supports USA Hockey's 60 special-hockey teams in more than 30 cities as part of the American Special Hockey Association, as well as the national-teams program.
Twenty percent of Friday morning's sales proceeds at the NHL Store were donated to the American Special Hockey Association.
"The NHL's support for special-needs athletes is unmatched in any other major American sport," said USA Hockey's Jim Smith, who coaches the Chicago Hornets, a special-needs team.
"There are outlets for those who are disabled," said Andrew Schwartz of Everybody Skates New Jersey. Schwartz is a player-coach with the New York Rangers
Sled Hockey Team, which plays out of the Rangers' practice facility in Greenburgh, N.Y. "Hockey is the ultimate way to get people back in the right frame of mind."
His brother, Jon, coaches the New Jersey Daredevils, a group of about 50 players who participate in a specially-adapted learning environment. The Daredevils have a regular Saturday afternoon practice spot at the Richard J. Codey Arena in West Orange, N.J.
The Schwartzes would like to see that kind of access in every rink.
The Everybody Skates New Jersey athletes are asking for one hour of ice time a week set aside for special-needs players at each rink in New Jersey.
"We can pay our own way. We can raise the funds," said Jon Schwartz. "We have 1.4 million disabled people in New Jersey, or 16 percent of the population. That's double the poverty level. New Jersey leads the nation in autism. One in 94 children in New Jersey is autistic. The need is there."
USA Hockey recognizes four distinct disabled hockey disciplines: sled, deaf/hard of hearing, standing amputee and special hockey. Players from all four disciplines are participating in the journey, which ends Sunday at Newark's Prudential Center, where the New Jersey Devils
host the Los Angeles Kings
at 5 p.m. ET.
"Disabled hockey programs enrich local communities, provide volunteer opportunities and are self-sustaining," Andrew Schwartz said. "The challenge these programs face is access to regular ice time each week in-season."
Hockey Weekend Across America was started by USA Hockey in 2008 to provide a framework for the hockey community to celebrate the game at all levels, while also exposing the sport to new audiences.
"There are tremendous things happening in our sport in all parts of the nation," said Dave Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey, "and it's only appropriate that we utilize Hockey Weekend Across America to celebrate those accomplishments."
For those interested in participating in a special-needs hockey program, or in starting one, O'Connor directed them to the USA Hockey Web site, USAhockey.com. Click on the Players drop-down menu and select "Disabled." There you'll find a list of teams and contact information.
"If you want to play hockey, we'll find a way to make it happen," O'Connor said.