It was a scene much like many before in this hockey hotbed in Upstate New York. Polite young men, with their hair slicked back after a shower, grab a quick bite to eat before heading out of town. On their way to the bus, they stop to talk hockey with fans of all ages and thank their host for the evening, Oswego native and Carolina Hurricane forward Erik Cole.
As members of a U.S. National Team unwind inside the Oswego State University Campus Center Blueline Club Lounge after their exhibition during the “Erik Cole Dream Big Foundation Golf & Hockey Classic” you wouldn’t have given the scene a second look.
But this was different and a sight that never before had been seen in Oswego, as well as much of the United States. Members of this hockey team were in wheelchairs, walking with canes or, in some cases, prosthetic legs. This hockey team was, without a doubt, the most diverse group of athletes that had ever taken the ice in Oswego.
“This year we had the opportunity of partnering the Dream Big Golf & Hockey Classic with Movealong Incorporated, a foundation set up by my friend Greg Callen, to bring the U.S. Men’s Sled Hockey Team to Oswego,” Cole said. “We were more than thrilled to be a part of this exhibition. It’s been a great experience.”
Callen, who grew up playing sports with Cole and his brother, is now confined to a wheelchair after an accident that robbed him of the use of his legs. Callen decided to create Movealong to enable disabled Central New Yorkers an outlet to participate actively in sports and life despite disabilities.
It is a cause Cole can certainly relate to after suffering a broken neck during the Stanley Cup Championship season of 2006.
“That’s where it really hits home, especially when it involves yourself and someone you grew up with and played sports together,” Cole recalled. “To think back at how close I was to having an injury that severe is pretty eye-opening and helps you appreciate what you have that much more.”
Now in its fourth year as a foundation event, Cole’s Dream Big Golf & Hockey Classic continues to look for new and interesting elements to keep the weekend vibrant.
“To be able to invite the U.S. Sled Hockey Team to Oswego to take part in Erik’s foundation event was a great opportunity for all hockey fans to see a great sport not many of us are familiar with,” said USA Hockey representative and Oswego resident Rick Pratt.
“The ability for our fans to see this event certainly raised awareness,” said Oswego State University Varsity Ice Hockey head coach Ed Gosek.
“It’s really important for everyone to take a step back and appreciate our own health. It also makes you aware of what everyday life is all about for people with disabilities. That’s what I hope everyone took away from this exhibition today at the Campus Center.”
It was a learning experience not only for the fans in the stands but also for a team of Oswego hockey notables who strapped themselves into sleds to take on the 2006 Paralympic bronze medalists.
U.S. head coach Ray Maluta, for one, was enthusiastic about the opportunity to showcase his team and this sport.
“The benefit of this event helps expose this sport – the game of sled hockey – to the area,” Maluta said. “It’s just something that you take your hat off to Erik for what he has done and continues to do and what he has been able to accomplish in his life. To be able to come and give back to the less fortunate, is just … Hockey players, in general over the years, are giving, giving people. This is a lot of fun and just a great thing to be associated with.”
With the Vancouver Olympic Winter Games on the horizon and more exhibition hockey games to play in order to prepare for the Games, one final surprise awaited this group of hockey players as Maluta and his U.S. team were saying goodbye. Cole and the Dream Big Foundation presented the U.S. team with two portable ergometers (the equivalent of a hand-cranked stationary bike) for in-season conditioning, and one fully- equipped road cycle for training.
“These guys are world-class athletes and should have high performance equipment to maintain their training and conditioning as they head into Vancouver 2010,” Cole said.
And with that, the U.S. Sled Hockey Team, just like many other teams that have ventured to the shores of Lake Ontario to the Oswego State campus, boarded their team bus and headed to their next destination hoping to expose and inspire more fans to their brand of hockey.