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Big Hearts In The Big Apple

By Harry Thompson, 03/25/24, 8:00PM EDT


New York Sled Rangers Reap The Rewards Of Breakaway Event

It’s a beautiful March evening in New York City as springlike temperatures coax locals away from the hustle and bustle of the city streets and into the lush oasis of Central Park. 

As some enjoy a leisurely stroll under the stars, the sound of laughter and cheers fills the air above Wollman Rink as members of the WSF New York Sled Rangers are impressing nearly 400 onlookers with their prowess to propel themselves across the ice, deftly stickhandling pucks and snapping shots into nets set up around the rink.

Many of the players and spectators are decked out in Broadway blue colors as they are there to support the 10th anniversary of the organization’s first Breakaway event. Four years after Covid and other causes cost the program to lose half of its sponsorship commitments, this is the best fund-raising event ever, netting more than $270,000, which will be used to purchase equipment for new players and to pay to participate in tournaments around the country.

For Bill Greenberg, it’s amazing how far the program has come in the past 10 years. He recalls when his 6-year-old son, Sam, was introduced to the game by Paralympian Victor Calise, who would become Greenberg’s partner in starting the Sled Rangers program in 2012. Two years later they would host their first Breakaway event.

Victor brought a little sled for Sam that very first day … and my son got on the ice that night and skated for two hours and just loved it,” recalls Greenberg, who son was born with a birth defect in his spinal cord and cannot move his lower body. 

“What’s not to love? He’s moving around, he’s got all this equipment. What little boy doesn’t like that stuff? He was hooked.”

That sent Greenberg searching for information about additional opportunities for his son to get his hockey fix. 

There were a couple of hurdles that needed to be overcome. One was that Greenberg didn’t know the first thing about hockey. The other was there were few, if any, local programs for his son to join.

“I don’t know anything about hockey or sports in general. I came to this when my son discovered it and wanted to play,” Greenberg says with a laugh. 

For several years father and son would travel to Woodbridge, N.J., to find available ice time. In the meantime, Greenberg and Calise remained in contact, pushing their dream forward to field enough local players to form a team.

“We started with seven or eight kids, none of whom had played sled hockey before, except for my son, who was then 9 years old,” Greenberg says. 

They eventually joined a league consisting of sled hockey teams from Washington, Delaware, Philadelphia and New Jersey. Those early days were tough. Not only was it a challenge to find enough kids to field a team, but when they did face off against other teams, they found that they were behind the curve when it came to skill level and understanding of the game.

“We were terrible. I don’t think we scored a goal for two years. We certainly didn’t win a game for three years. It was hard going,” Greenberg says. 

“When you first start out, you need a mix of older and younger kids, so the younger kids just coming in can learn how to play from watching the older kids. That was something we didn’t have because they were largely the same age, and none of them had played before. So, everyone was learning all at once.”

It helped to have someone like Calise to help both the players and parents learn the game on the fly. Calise grew up playing roller hockey in Queens and was paralyzed from the chest down after a 1994 mountain biking accident. Two years later he discovered sled hockey and made the 1996 national team. He would go on to play on the first U.S. Sled Team at the 1998 Paralympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.

After his playing days were over, Calise became the commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. In addition to serving the City’s disabled community, he continued to coach the Sled Rangers, something that remains close to his heart.

“The whole idea is to get them involved and show them what disabled athletes can do,” Calise said in a 2012 article in The New York Times. “If they can do this now, they don’t see their disability.”

Seeing how a disabled player’s on-ice success can lead to a productive life away from the rink is something that makes all the hard work and long hours well worth the effort for Greenberg and Calise.

“We are continuing to change perceptions and ideas about what people with physical disabilities are able to do,” Greenberg says. “When Sled Rangers athletes walk or wheel into their classrooms and they tell their able-bodied friends that they are hockey players, it changes how their friends see them, how their parents see them and how they see themselves. We are increasing self-esteem, self-confidence and independence.”

It’s not just the players who benefit from being a part of the program. It’s also provided a support group for parents, who can talk with others who are dealing with the same challenges of raising a disabled child.

“The community that we’ve created is basically a support group where people can exchange information and ask, ‘How does this go? How does that go? Tell me how you deal with an issue when schools aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do according to the [Americans with Disabilities Act],’” Greenberg says “It’s all those things that we’ve all been through. It’s an amazing resource for parents to be able to share information.”

Players range in age from 7 to 18 years old, with a few 5-year-olds sprinkled into the mix. The players have limited or no mobility in their lower bodies because of injuries or conditions like spina bifida or cerebral palsy. They practice and play at Flushing Meadows Park in Queens. With ample handicapped parking and easy access for players to enter the ice surface, it’s one of the few rinks in the country that was designed with sled hockey in mind.

The program covers 100 percent of the costs for any athlete who wants to play thanks to the generosity of donors and sponsors, including the Challenged Athletes Foundation, the NHL’s Rangers and the Wheelchair Sports Federation.

As the players individual skills have improved and the team has become more competitive – they finished first in their division at the 2023 USA Hockey Disabled Festival – Greenberg sees success in the more basic way of expanding opportunities to even more youngsters in the New York City area.

“The program has evolved over the years, and we keep getting new kids. That’s one of the biggest things that I would like to do more of,” he admits. “We have enough resources and everything to accommodate more and more kids. We get 15 to 20 say that come regularly. I’d love to be able to double or triple that number.”

Events like the Breakaway go a long way towards not only raising funds to move the program forward but to increasing awareness that there are opportunities for youngsters, no matter what their disability, to be a part of a team. 

The event is much more than a buffet dinner and open bar where donors mingle for a bit, write a check and then go home. Here, attendees can slip into a sled and try to skate around the ice, quickly realizing how difficult it is to skate forward, not to mention trying to stickhandle a puck, turn or stop.

“The idea is for guests to try the sleds to see what it’s like and to be there with the kids and to see them actually skating,” Greenberg says. “It’s a lot harder than it looks.”

Among those watching from the sidelines was 20-year-old Sam Greenberg, who no longer skates in the program. But the confidence he’s gained through his years of playing sled hockey has enabled him to move on to other interests.

And like so many hockey parents whose involvement in the sport has continued long after their children’s playing days are done, the elder Greenberg continues to donate his time and energies to see the program continue to grow.

“I still go out to the rink every week to watch them practice,” he says. “I love meeting the new kids when they come to the rink for the first time and get them fitted with equipment and see them skating for the first time, talking with the parents who are watching their kids for the first time on the ice. That never gets old.”