8/24/2017 12:30:00 PM / Jourdon LaBarber
One trip to Milwaukee was all it took to inspire Adam Page to bring wheelchair lacrosse to Buffalo. Now, players for the Bandits Wheelchair Lacrosse Team are hoping a second trip has given them the foundation they’ll need to compete on the national stage.
Buffalo will play host to the 2017 Wheelchair Lacrosse USA National Championship at Buffalo RiverWorks on Friday and Saturday, and the Bandits are one of seven teams scheduled to compete. The tournament will mark the Bandits’ second time playing against outside competition.
Their first, at the Midwest Regional Championships in Milwaukee this past June, was an eye-opening experience. Buffalo lost all four of their games and only scored one goal in the process.
“We were the best looking,” Norm Page said, a reference to the team’s team-colored wheelchairs. “We didn’t play like the best looking, but it was our first tournament. I thought they played very well. A lot of the athletes from this area played sled hockey for many years. The transfer is a big adjustment.”
More important than the results of that tournament, however, are what those two trips to Milwaukee might mean both for the upcoming weekend and for the future of the sport in Buffalo.
Tyler Ball was five years old when he fell in love with sled hockey. The 20-year-old Lancaster native has spina bifida, a condition in which there is incomplete closing of the spinal column at birth. Surgery to close his spine paralyzed him from the waist down, although he’s now able to walk with crutches.
But while Ball has spent his entire life playing sled hockey – he began attending development camp for Team USA when he was 13 – it wasn’t until he spent a year living in Texas that he saw a full range of adaptive sports offered.
“They had all sorts of stuff,” he said. “They had basketball and track, so you could play anything.”
While sled hockey has a strong presence in Buffalo, Ball says, adaptive sports for the summer season do not. It was that same void that led Adam Page, a two-time Paralympic gold medalist in sled hockey for Team USA, to Milwaukee a year ago.
Page had discovered wheelchair lacrosse online and went to spend a weekend playing with Milwaukee’s club, the Eagles. He decided the sport belonged in Buffalo as well. Together with his father Norm, Adam put the plans in motion to start the Bandits Wheelchair Lacrosse Team.
The roster they compiled is comprised of players ages 17 to 26, with conditions that range from spina bifida (which Page was also born with) to cerebral palsy and low muscle tone. The roster is rounded out with able-bodied players, three of whom are allowed to share the court at a given time.
Some of those players knew Adam through sled hockey, a group that includes Ryan Nurmi. Now a senior studying pre-med at Canisius College, Nurmi played high school field lacrosse until a snowmobiling accident paralyzed him from the waist down a month before his 15th birthday.
Nurmi began playing sled hockey five years ago, and attended a wheelchair lacrosse clinic in New York City. When Adam presented him with a chance to join the team in Buffalo, he saw it as a gateway back into a sport he loved.
“It’s fun,” Nurmi said. “There’s more camaraderie. It makes me feel like I’m getting back.”
The goal now is to expand and give more people that same opportunity. Norm Page says he sees potential for Buffalo to field two teams down the road, which would provide the unique opportunity for intrasquad scrimmages. He and Adam are working to grow the game regionally as well, with their eyes set on Rochester, Syracuse and Southern Ontario.
Eventually, they’d like to see the game grow on the youth level.
“I think our biggest thing is Adam’s been playing sled hockey all his life,” Norm said. “He plays it 12 months a year. Our goal was to give kids another spot. They should be able to do other sports just like any kid. Lacrosse was just natural.”
It was a matter of mere circumstance that Rich Randall became involved with wheelchair lacrosse. Randall’s wife works with Sandy Page, Adam’s mother, who happened to know that Randall had a background in lacrosse (he played at the University at Buffalo and coaches at Iroquois High). She asked if Randall knew anyone who could coach the team.
“I said, 'What the hell, I’ll do it,” Randall recalled.
Over time, Randall would learn just how different the wheelchair game is. The team brought in Ryan Baker, one of two founders of Wheelchair Lacrosse USA, for a tutorial last summer, but the offseason began soon after.
It wasn’t until the Bandits went to Milwaukee for the Midwest Regional Tournament that they fully understood the changes they needed to make. Randall coaches a motion offense in field lacrosse, meaning players move with the ball to set up the pass. They learned in game competition that replicating that style in wheelchair lacrosse was problematic; moving the chair while possessing the ball is too difficult. The lesson: move without the ball, pass often and learn to do it with one hand on the stick.
The Bandits adjusted quickly and improved as the tournament went on. They lost their final game by a score of 2-1.
“The adaptations we’ve made in the practices since, there’s a feel that we’ll be a lot more solid because of that,” Randall said. “I tell these guys that they just need time.”
Perhaps of equal importance, the road trip helped transformed what may have felt like a group before into a true team. They practice only once a week, sometimes twice. Time together on the road bred camaraderie.
“I feel as though we really bonded as a team,” defenseman Kyle Dominiak said. “That should help us coming into the tournament next week.”
“We go in this tournament and personally, two things came out of it for me,” Randall added. “First, I learned all of the guys. I learned them other than an athlete; I learned them as a person.
“The second one, which is mind blowing to me because I consider myself reasonably open, is I got an increased awareness of the disabled community. I looked at my hotel room in a different light, the shower, a vehicle. I gained a new respect.”
In the weeks since, players say practices have been more focused. A feeling exists among the Bandits that they can close the gap on their competition quickly, especially given the athletic ability of the players who transitioned from sled hockey. Randall says most of the players try to keep going after the two-hour practices, and the fact that they’ve dedicated personal time practicing has become increasingly noticeable.
All the while, an anticipation exists about the upcoming weekend, when they’ll have the chance to host teams from throughout the country and play in front of the community they represent.
“I’m definitely excited for these guys to have that outlet,” Randall said. “My heart tells me that this is something they’re pretty excited about, to put it mildly.”