Published in: Western New York Hockey Magazine, November 2009
By Dave Whalen

Western New York continues to establish itself as a hockey hotbed. Sold out Sabres games, NCAA Division 1 and NHL players being produced steadily, and youth hockey galore all support the fact that we love this game and we're good at playing it.

However, where our area may be at its hockey finest is a sport that is slowly coming into its own. Western New York has become America's home for USA Hockey's finest players. Need proof? Forwards Brad Emmerson, Adam Page, Al Salamone and goalie Mike Blabac hail from the area (F Chris Manns just retired this past summer). D Nikko Landeros and F Andy Yohe have moved to the area to work out with their teammates. Head Coach Ray Maluta is from Rochester and is heading the effort to make the ESL Center a prestigious hockey palace for the national team to train and play year round. Team USA hosted Canada there on Halloween in a highly anticipated match up. Buffalo hosted the National Disabled hockey Festival this past March. Riverside's Bud Blakewell rink was one of the first accessible rinks in the country.

To understand Sled hockey you need to understand its roots. Designed for the athlete who has some form of physical disability, the player is in a sled that has a double wide skate blade under it. The player propels with his sticks, one in each hand, that has spurs at the end of it. Athletes must have a strong upper body and be agile as stopping and starting is common and necessary. To build that strength, the locals meet three times a week at the Proformance training center in the Pepsi Center and work out with trainer John Opfer, who has developed the state of the art training regimen for sled hockey players nationwide. Opfer recognized the unique physical attributes that go with sled hockey. "We looked at the game of sled hockey and said here's a game with phenomenal balance. They're sitting down on one blade, and the balance and coordination was all taken into consideration." Opfer looked beyond the various disabilities and saw the athlete, understanding the use of upper body, especially the shoulders, elbows, and wrists. "We had to assess all the guys individually and then built the program performance driven for sled hockey." Opfer has since been hired by USA Hockey as a strength and conditioning coach.

So all this preparation is for the ultimate goal-Olympic Gold! Team USA is the defending World Champs coming off stunning victories over Canada and Norway this past June in the Czech Republic. Page, the youngest on the team at 17, scored the team's lone regulation goal before netting the deciding goal in the 7th round of the shootout to knock out arch rival Canada to advance to the finals against Norway. That's where Team USA goalie Stevie Cash (St. Louis) stood on his head in a 1-0 Gold medal clinching performance. Blabac, the team's back up netminder, has this to say about Cash. "There's nobody better in the world than him right now. He's just been rock solid." Blabac, 35, played his whole life stand up then was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. He has been on the squad for four years and understands his support role and embraces it.

But Canada is the home team this March, a point not lost with Emmerson. "The biggest challenge we face is still Canada." said the veteran winger from Williamsville North. "They play the same game every day, if you give them opportunities they always capitalize. You have to limit their chances and when you get them you have to finish. They don't let you take that second and third shot." So how about playing them as host country in the Olympics? "It's going to be a lot of extra adrenaline going in there playing against the Canadiens in Canada. They are going to want to play that much harder to win in front of their home crowd. You really have to go in there ready to battle."

One of the promising young players is Salamone, who was featured in an ESPN special three years back both for his talents and how he lost legs in his native Russia (a child of the Chernobyl disaster), he has worked his way back to a near berth on the national team. "I missed the whole last season, by far the longest streak not being on the national team." the 22 year old Grand Island resident said. "I knew I had a spot before, seeing I wasn't there and they won without a power forward. I've changed my game a bit, more mental hockey." There are three cuts left, coming in December before the squad takes a tune up trip to Nagano to play Japan, Norway, and either Korea or the Czech Republic.

Landeros came here from the Denver area while Yohe and his wife have moved to Rochester from Iowa to train and practice with their (hopeful) teammates. Landeros knows he hasn't made this team yet, a big reason he made the cross country trek to work out in Buffalo, seeing it enhances his chances. "I moved here, pretty much gave up my life to do this. I like everyone on the team, they're a lot of fun. Hopefully I'll be with them in Vancouver. It's different (here) than Colorado."

Yohe makes the 130 mile round trip to the Pepsi Center three times a week to work out with Opfer and his team mates. "Our work outs here are really good. It also helps the team chemistry when we can all be together, we can drive each other. It's been really worth the drive." Yohe is in his sixth season but transplanted to Rochester eight months ago. "It's obviously a lot more of a hockey area than Iowa, it's been awesome. My wife was on board to make the move. I've got more ice time."

Norm Page is the father of the talented Adam Page and the USA Sled hockey national director. Page notes the incredible change in lifestyle and the thrill of watching his son represent his country. "I never thought Adam would have an opportunity to reach the level he has as an athlete, to reach that high level and watch him travel the world to compete. It's been an unbelievable feeling as a parent." Norm gives a lot of credit to USA Hockey for their support and dedication to this program. "USA Hockey has believed in these athletes and has taken it to a new level, they respect them as any other athlete." Norm feels confident that this team can achieve the ultimate goal. "I think this is the best team USA has ever fielded. The combination of youth and experience, they've worked hard and come together as a team. I think they have a really great shot to win Gold in Vancouver."