Two Classic Games Highlight Last Tournament of the Season
Written by Peter Quartuccio
WESTFIELD, MA—A total of 16 sled hockey teams from around the country, including one representing Canada, met at the Amelia Park Ice Arena in Westfield, Massachusetts on April 16-18 to play in what for most clubs was the final major tournament of the 2009-2010 season, the New England Invitational Sled Hockey Tournament.
The teams were split into Junior and Adult divisions, with the Buffalo Junior Sabres and Pennsylvania Hammerheads claiming the Junior division titles, and the latter featuring many 2010 Paralympians, especially in Pool A. Pool B featured some top-notch talent as well, and was thoroughly dominated by eventual champions, the New York Rangers. The Rangers went undefeated at Amelia Park, dismantling their four opponents by a combined score of 29-2, including a 7-1 thrashing of the Connecticut Wolfpack in the Pool B Championship game.
Hot off their dominant showing and first-place finish the previous weekend at the Disabled Hockey Festival in Laurel, Maryland, the Buffalo Sabres were the sure favorite to win the Adult division. The Sabres boasted a total of four Paralympians—Alexi Salamone, Adam Page, Mike Blabac, and Brad Emmerson—and seemed to pick up where they left off the week before, smoking the NEP Wildcats in their first game, 13-3. But for one reason or another, Buffalo’s dominance ended there, as they simply didn’t have the punch they had in Laurel. They battled a tough Ontario squad in their second game, edging past the Canadians 5-3, and in what turned out to be the tournament’s most exciting and well-played game, tied a game Pennsylvania team, 6-6. The PA Center-Pedes seemed due for a good performance, as they were thoroughly outplayed in their first two games of the competition. Returning Paralympians Tim Jones, Bubba Torres, and Jimmy Connelly alongside Junior National Captain Dan McDevitt came up huge in their matchup against Buffalo, with all of them providing major contributions on the ice. Although they were manhandled in their first two games of the tournament (they were outscored by a total of 20 to 6), the Center-Pedes seemed undaunted and undeterred. They played with confidence throughout their game versus Buffalo, with Torres providing the speed, Jones the power, and McDevitt the relentless pressure. Not to be outdone, Connelly poured in three goals as well. Buffalo’s Salamone and Emmerson had excellent games as well, and while the see-saw battle ended in a stalemate, no one can deny the winning qualities of each and every player on the ice.
Buffalo’s opponent in the Championship game at Amelia Park, the NEP Wildcats, had a tough weekend at the Disabled Hockey Festival. Though they played well by and large—thanks in large part to the performances of Paralympians Taylor Chace and Joe Howard—they were soundly beaten by the Sabres several times, prompting doubts as to the team’s legitimacy as a truly dominant squad (the Wildcats had recently won their third consecutive NESHL title and dominated a sled hockey tournament in Queens, New York). They sought to dispel those doubts in Amelia Park, but got off to a decidedly rocky start, as they were trounced by their nemesis Buffalo in their first game, 13-3. They started to turn the tide with their next game, which was a comfortable 10-5 victory against Pennsylvania. The Wildcats’ third game was an out-and-out barnburner with Ontario, who seemed to be able to match the Wildcats’ considerable firepower. Canadian Paralympian Brad Bowden had an incredible 5 goals, but he was matched by Team USA two-time Gold Medalist Joe Howard, who too scored 5 goals. In the end, Howard’s teammates were just a little better than Bowden’s, as the Wildcats bested Ontario 9-7. Next came the game all in attendance expected and anticipated: NEP v. Buffalo, one more time.
The rematch of the Laurel championship game between the two squads was marred somewhat by a brawl that ensued in the final moments of the game. The details of the dustup remain cloudy, but one thing is for sure: the game itself was terrific. A tough, physical, bruising affair, the Pool A Championship game fulfilled expectations and rewarded the immense anticipation. The Wildcats, much to their credit, did not seem intimidated by the team that had utterly dominated them in recent history. They matched Buffalo hit-for-hit, shot-for-shot, and save-for-save. Despite two controversial no-goals—one of which was nothing short of criminal—the Wildcats remained focused and convinced that this Championship was for the taking. They eventually cashed in on the occasionally sluggish play of the Sabres, and took the game and the title, 5-4. No amount of punches thrown or landed in those final seconds could undermine the Wildcats’ achievement who, in their victory, effectively exorcised the demons of Buffalo dominance.
This past sled hockey season has been a remarkable one indeed. The best of the best made their country proud by taking Gold on enemy soil, and the NESHL, the Disabled Hockey Festival, and the New England Invitational Sled Hockey Tournament featured some truly classic games and remarkable performances. The quality of play continues to rise, and sled hockey fans have good reason to anticipate the start of next season.