Ask most young hockey players to list their favorite players and you will hear names like Drury, Modano and Kane. Ask another group of hockey players the same question and they will say Emmerson, Hannah and St. Germaine.
While those names might not ring a bell for much of the hockey community, they are held in the highest esteem for a small, but growing segment of the hockey community.
Brad Emmerson, Lonnie Hannah and Kip St. Germaine have each worn the colors of Team USA at the Paralympic Winter Games. While the NHL is the pinnacle of one’s hockey career, making it to the Paralympics is the acme for aspiring sled hockey players.
U.S. National Sled Hockey Team members represent an elite group of world-class athletes who play the game with the same dedication and passion as their NHL counterparts. Because of that, they are the most visible ambassadors of their sport, and have used their celebrity within the disabled community to help grow the game throughout the country.
St. Germaine is a former member of the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team and three-time Paralympian. He earned a gold medal as a member of Team USA at the 2002 Paralympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. He has remained close to the game and feels a responsibility to help it grow.
“I try to get people excited about the game and let them know what is available out there,” said the native of Wareham, Mass. “The disabled community is unfortunately growing, but I try to get out and let people know that this is an option.”
St. Germaine finds that getting both disabled and able-bodied people out to see sled hockey can yield positive results.
“A lot of times people think that because we are disabled, we are fragile or that sled hockey isn’t a good brand of hockey,” he said. “But as soon as they see the hitting, the skill and the speed of the game, they tend to get really excited.”
Christian Barclay, a 10-year-old sled hockey player from Cotuit, Mass., is one such convert.
Barclay, who was born without legs, met St. Germaine when he was 3 years old. After being taken for a spin on St. Germaine’s sled and holding the gold medal from the 2002 Paralympics, Barclay was hooked. Even though he was too young to participate in competitive sled hockey, he eagerly awaited his chance to hop in his own sled and zoom around the ice. Two years ago, he finally got the chance after he joined the Mass. Hospital School sled hockey team.
Growing both the game’s fan and participant base comes down to exposing them to the speed, the action and the intensity of the game played at the highest level. The 2008 IPC Ice Sledge Hockey World Championships came to the hockey hotbed of Marlborough, Mass., with that goal in mind.
While the World Championships were under way, the Fourth Annual USA Hockey Disabled Festival moved into town. With the two events running side-by-side, sled hockey players had the rare opportunity to see their idols in action. The festival also exposed new people to all levels of disabled hockey.
Barclay, who had never seen the team play before, was awestruck at the skill of the players.
“They really inspired me,” he said. “It makes me want to work harder and practice harder so I can be on the team someday.”
Because having two major events like these running simultaneously is a once-in-a-lifetime event, national team members have worked harder to make themselves more available within the sled hockey community.
Emmerson, a native of Amherst, N.Y., a current member of Team USA and 2006 Paralympic bronze medalist, remembers when he was just getting started and how much he looked up to the players on the national team.
“A guy that I looked up to when he was on the team, and still look up to now is Lonnie Hannah,” Emmerson said. “He really took me under his wing and got me to where I am today.”
Hannah’s post-national team efforts have also inspired others. He formed the San Antonio Rampage sled hockey team that includes many Army veterans who were wounded in battle.
“[Hannah] didn’t start the team for himself,” Emmerson said. “He did it for the good of the game and the good of the people playing. He’s been an amazing role model for me, and I couldn’t imagine my life without him right now.”
Taking a cue from his former teammates, Emmerson used his celebrity within the disabled community in New York to help grow the game in his home state.
In 2007, along with fellow national teamer, Adam Page, Emmerson helped to develop the Bethlehem Eagles Sled Hockey Team, located near Albany, N.Y.
The Bethlehem program is still in the early stages, but has been growing thanks, in part, to the assistance of Page and Emmerson. With the two national team players helping run clinics and practices, the Eagles continued to flourish and participated in their first-ever tournament at the 2008 USA Hockey Disabled Festival.
National team members are not required to help grow the game, but they do it because the sport has had a profound effect on them. Having been in the same position as many individuals in the disabled community, the players are returning the favor to the sport that helped them develop not only as athletes, but also as people.
“Anytime I have the chance to work with the kids or promote the sport, I do it,” said Emmerson who often coaches at clinics and camps and currently coaches the novice Buffalo Sabres sled hockey team.
“The way I look at it, and I know [my teammates] feel the same way, is that we have to get as many teams and as many opportunities to get kids to play.
“It’s not just about getting involved in athletics, it’s more about helping the players grow as people, gain confidence and let them do things they never thought were possible.”
U.S. Sled Hockey Veteran Chris Manns Has Been To The Top, And Is Determined To Get There Again
As the elder statesman of the U.S. Sled Hockey Team, Chris Manns has seen it all. From coaching changes to roster moves, the North Tonawanda, N.Y., native has remained the one constant on a team that has seen its ups and downs since winning the gold medal at the 2002 Paralympic Games.
Now, Manns is looking to lead the U.S. Sled Team back to prominence by the time the Paralympics return to North America in 2010.
At 28 years of age, Manns is still relatively young, but he represents the old guard on a team with an average age of 21. With a young team, Manns’ leadership and experience are at a premium.
“Guys not only come to me about certain situations or questions or concerns about the team or hockey in general, but about life, too,“ said Manns, who has taken over the role as team captain.
“I’m not just their captain on the ice, but off the ice as well. I give them any advice that I can, that’s what I’m there for.”
“The biggest reason I stayed is because of the passion I have for the game,” Manns said. “Just being able to put on the USA jersey and represent my country has always been a dream of mine since I was a little kid. It’s been an honor to play for my country.”
After winning the gold medal, Manns continued to set goals for himself and for his team.
“I had a lot of great guys, great athletes, to look up to as mentors and so my goal after winning the gold was to be the captain of this team and lead these young guys to gold,” he said.
After leading the team to the bronze medal at the 2008 International Paralympic Committee Ice Sledge Hockey World Championships in April, Manns sees nothing but a bright future for Team USA as it prepares for the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver.
“After leaving the Worlds, we had a sour taste in our mouths,” he said. “We’re a lot better than a third-place team.
“This year and the next season coming up, we’re going to take it one step at a time and one game at a time. As far as we’re concerned, we’ve already kicked off our run to Vancouver.”