The NHL’s New York Rangers are accustomed to playing for big home crowds. But Tuesday night, it was a different Rangers team getting the cheers.
Nearly 400 people gathered at Bryant Park’s famous ice rink in the heart of New York for the Wheelchair Sports Federation’s New York Sled Rangers 2016 Breakaway event, which celebrated and raised funds to support youth sled hockey players in America’s largest city.
The second edition of the event included a live auction to raise money for the Sled Rangers program, which has nearly doubled in size from 23 to 42 athletes since the first Breakaway event drummed up support and sponsorships in 2014.
It also had some star power.
Former NHL superstar and six-time Stanley Cup winner Mark Messier was on hand, serving as an ambassador for the signature Breakaway event and trying out sled hockey himself.
“You can never judge a person until you’ve skated a mile in their sled, which I got the chance to do today,” Messier said when addressing the attendees. “It was no easy task.
“These kids just want to be considered athletes and hockey players, and that’s what we’re trying to do first and foremost.”
The team is coached by Victor Calise, a member of the 1998 U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team who now serves as the commissioner of the mayor’s office for people with disabilities in New York.
Initially a member of the Delaware Valley Hockey League for two years, last season, the Sled Rangers divided into three separate teams by geographic location in the city to create their own New York City league.
They also started an all-star travel team with the goal of having at least once Sled Ranger qualify for the 2022 U.S. Paralympic Team, and they had the chance to meet and skate with U.S. Paralympian Rico Roman last year.
Sebastian Milan, a 10-year-old Sled Rangers forward, was on cloud nine the entire night.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, because Mark Messier doesn’t play hockey anymore and you can only find him on Google images, and he played tonight with us and was very good in the sled,” Milan said.
Milan has been playing with the Sled Rangers every weekend for the last two years since he first heard about the sport when lying in a hospital bed. As one of the squad’s speediest forwards, he sports No. 20 on the back of his jersey just like his hero, New York Rangers winger and Massachusetts native Chris Kreider.
One of his Milan’s teammates, meanwhile, 13-year-old forward Emma Albert, was recruited by Calise three years ago and has dreams of one day playing on a U.S. women’s national sled hockey team.
“I was a little apprehensive about the sport at first, but after I tried it once, there was no turning back for me,” Albert said. “This event means a lot to me and all of my teammates just to know that someone at Mark Messier’s skill level and someone that famous wants to be a part of helping us grow sled hockey as a sport.”
Off the ice, Messier works as CEO of the Kingsbridge National Ice Center in the Bronx, which hopes to become the largest ice sports facility in the world when complete. The venue’s design takes into account the needs of sled hockey players, and will include accessible rinks, benches, penalty boxes and locker rooms.
“We met with his team and went through exercises to talk about what it’s like to venture through an ice arena as someone with a disability,” Calise said. “We even talked about hiring people with disabilities to work as staff on and off the ice. This is hopefully going to be the most accessible rink in the world.”
The Sled Rangers are excited to eventually make the switch from where they currently play — Lasker Rink in Central Park — to the Kingsbridge National Ice Center, thanks to the support of one of hockey’s all-time greats.
“I’m looking to help take this sport to a whole other level in the years to come,” Messier said.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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