Cheers erupted from the Town of Oyster Bay Ice Skating Center in Bethpage on Saturday night as the Long Island Blues Special Hockey Team took on their former mentors, the New York Raptors.
The game was the final match in a four-game series of the Third Annual Long Island Blues Winter Classic. Cosponsored by the Town of Oyster Bay, the event featured players from the Blues and three other tri-state area special-needs hockey teams: the New York Raptors, the New Jersey Dare Devils and the East Coast Jumbos.
The Winter Classic grew to more than 100 players and nearly 300 spectators this year from just two players 10 years ago.
Founded by Michael and Laura Russo, the Long Island Blues began as an idea to get their 6-year-old son Nicholas, who was born with Down syndrome, involved in a social activity. They enlisted the help of family friend and hockey enthusiast Neil Robbins.
“We talked and thought since we’re both hockey families, we could start something for Nick with a special-needs team,” Laura Russo said.
Robbins sought out advice from an established team in Westchester.
“The Raptors mentored us in the first year,” Robbins said. “We started by just playing with them.”
The team has grown to include 38 players ages 6 to 30. As a division of the American Special Hockey Association, the Blues is the only official special-needs hockey team on Long Island, accommodating a range of disabilities including autism, Down syndrome, ADHD and Asperger’s syndrome.
Town of Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto presented each of the team coaches with trophies at the event Saturday, and every player received a medal of participation.
“All the young people here tonight, but for this opportunity, don’t get a chance to play in a sport,” Venditto said. “The Long Island Blues is a fabulous organization that teaches them so much more than just how to play. They learn team spirit, competition, determination and the importance of keeping a positive attitude.”
Former New York Ranger Pete Stemkowski made an appearance and signed autographs for fans.
Carole Butler, of Long Beach, volunteered to sell raffle tickets at the event. Her son, Alex, 25, has severe autism and has been playing with the Blues for five years.
“The coaches really try to get him involved,” Butler said. “He loves it. He never stops smiling the entire time he’s on the ice.”