A couple dozen hockey players left the ice Jan. 5 at the Town of Oyster Bay Rink in Bethpage, trudging to the locker room to take off their skates. A new wave of skate-less athletes filed in and unpacked their sleds, ready for some ice time of their own.
Informal salutations joyfully echoed the rink, as Long Island Sled Hockey, Inc. officially conquered the space. The collection of boys and girls as young as 9 years old to grown men in their 60s, each with a physical or mental disability of some kind, prepared in haste for the bi-weekly hour-long practice that transports them to a place void of limitations.
The Long Island RoughRiders are not just a sled hockey team that competes against other squads in the U.S. and Canada, but a family that started with 16 members and now has about 50, each with their own story.
Christopher Bustamante, who served in the army from 2009 to 2014, took a fall during redeployment and suffered a spinal injury as a result. He relocated to Germany and then Fort Drum, a military reservation in upstate New York, where he began playing sled hockey as a way to offset the physical and mental toll of his injury that took him away from his fellow soldiers. Originally from Long Island, the current Islip Terrace resident made his way back home and joined the RoughRiders.
“Everybody here has their challenges and it’s interesting to see that when you get on the ice, they’ve overcome those challenges because out here there’s not a disability,” Bustamante said. “There’s that feeling of camaraderie that I had when I was in the military and these guys, they bring it all back for me and it’s really nice to be part of that.”
While some become “differently-abled” later in life, others are born that way. Merrick resident Dan Santos has dealt with femoral hypoplasia his whole life, a syndrome in which you are born with small femurs.
“I always wanted to play hockey when I was growing up [but] didn’t really know how I could possibly do it with crutches walking around,” said Santos. “I found sled hockey and it’s been awesome ever since.”
Santos, 22, began playing at the age of 10, immediately falling in love with the sport that is the perfect replacement for conventional hockey. Invented in Sweden in the 1960s, the game was meant for those with disabilities who still wanted to play hockey. With six men on each side, including goalies, the sport that has become one of the most popular events at the Paralympic Games carries many of the same rules as traditional hockey.
Each player is sitting on what is known as a sledge, called sleds by most Americans. To move on the ice, they have a short sticks in each hand with blades on the top that can dig into the ice to help propel them forward. Though teeing-charging—using the front of the sled to hit an opposing player—is illegal, checks are allowed and even some fights break out.
The team has won 14 tournament titles, four silver medals and seven bronze medals since 2003 when Bryan Blomquist, 66, volunteered to take over as coach, failing to place in just four tournaments during that span. The RoughRiders have traveled to Albany, Massachusetts, Florida and Ottawa, Canada to compete and will embark on their trip to the London Blizzard Invitational in London, Ontario on Jan. 21.
Long Island Sled Hockey also hosts the RoughRiders Cup and challenges varsity hockey teams to get in sleds and play them, including the Cadets at the United States Military Academy in front of a large West Point crowd every November. Despite the team’s frequent domination in those match-ups and the bevy of banners hanging in the Bethpage rink, Blomquist, a Vietnam War veteran and retired police lieutenant said that isn’t what the RoughRiders are about.
“You can’t put a price on smiles,” Blomquist said, who has a son with Down’s Syndrome on the team. “We measure success in smiles, not ribbons. In self-esteem, not first and second place. Did you have fun? Did you try as hard as you could?”
Those are the questions Blomquist cares about, and doesn’t ask many others when new people want to join the team. Instead of turning away mentally disabled players, the Massapequa native and current Lynbrook resident said he thinks the Rough Riders are the only non-profit in the country in which the mentally-handicapped make up about 25 percent of the program.
New members of all ages and talent levels are welcome, and the growing number of members meant last year’s costs eclipsed $350,000, but those expenses never make it to the athletes. Blomquist’s fundraising efforts—including a golf outing, a months-long television raffle and the “50s Sock Hop” dance every November—pull in most of the money, and two months ago, Blomquist announced at the major November benefit that he had raised $258,000 in 2015. His first year, he raised $14,000, which shows just how far the program has come.
“It’s not me, it’s them,” Blomquist said. “They sell the program. All I ask people, come down and watch them for five minutes, but I want you to come for the last five minutes because I want you to see them get off the ice. This guy’s strapping on a leg, this guy is strapping on two. Eight guys are in wheelchairs…watch when they come off [the ice]. They’re all smiling.”