As his legs slid down the bottom rung of the ladder, Chris Manns didn’t have enough time to watch his hockey dreams fade. When the train tied to the ladder nearly cut both his legs off and he woke up in the Children’s Hospital, he thought they were gone forever.
Growing up in the Riverside section of Buffalo, sport was Mann’s world. Football, hockey, basketball, he couldn’t get enough. At age 10, he had childish dreams of playing in the NHL, but he knew it was probably a dream. On March 16, 1991, he and some friends tried to jump on a moving train and he thought that even his fantasies were over.
After a complete amputation of his right leg and a below-knee amputation of his left, he was introduced to sled hockey in a clinic and all those dreams of greatness came back. Manns, who now lives in North Tonawanda, spent eight years with the United States national team, including two Paralympic Games.
But his contributions 20 years ago in winning a gold medal with the 2002 squad that only qualified for the Paralympics because Salt Lake City hosted it, helped create a movement for what is now one of the most popular disability sports in the world. the country is and a program in the United States that is the most dominant in the world.
Manns and the 2002 Paralympic team have been nominated for inclusion in the United States Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame and are the subject of a book called Hockeys Hidden Gods, written by SC Megale, due out in December.
It’s every little boy’s dream to play in the NHL or the Olympics, but I probably never would have had the chance to play or represent my country, Manns said. There is no greater honor than being able to pull that sweater over your shoulders. You are one of 15 who can do it.
When Manns started playing in 1992, what is now Buffalo Sabers sled hockey was still a year away from his formation. For a while, Manns and a few other players from western New York joined a group in St. Catharines, Ontario, just to form a competitive team for tournaments.
The sport was a free-for-all, as some cities didn’t have enough players to assemble teams and brought in mercenaries, often talented players who didn’t have a team to play for. When Manns first tried out for the United States’ first national team for the Paralympics in 1998, the program was a reflection of the world it lived in.
There was limited funding from any governing body, so players paid out of pocket for travel and accommodation at tryouts, training camps and matches. Coaches sometimes chose local buddies instead of the top players, even though the talent pool was scarce.
Wheelchair Sport was the governing body for sled hockey, then it was changed to US Paralympic and then USA Hockey came along, so the waters were pretty muddy, said Rich DeGlopper, a Grand Island resident who was the general manager of the team from 2002. Nobody thought we were going to do something, so there wasn’t much effort. The 2002 gold medal was probably the cheapest gold medal the US has ever won in anything.
At the age of 17, Manns had the talent to create the team that went on to play at the 1998 Paralympic Games in Nagano, Japan. Favoritism and the immaturity that comes with youth left him a spectator.
Initially, Manns told his father that he never wanted to play again, but then it became a motivation. By the time the tryouts for the 2002 Paralympic team were held at Buffalo State College in August 2001, Manns was unmistakable. At 250 pounds, he was immobile on the puck, possessed a left-handed shot approaching 90 miles per hour, and a hockey acumen that enabled him to anticipate play.
I knew the potential he had and the fact that he had a left-handed shot, DeGlopper said. … He was a big guy and you wouldn’t knock him off the puck. You could try, but you wouldn’t knock him off the puck. He would stand up for himself and for everyone else on the ice.
In 2001, DeGlopper transitioned from assistant coach to general manager and was given the task of cleaning up a mess of a team that went 1-3-1 in Nagano and finished sixth in the 2000 World Championships.
Returning coach Angelo Bianco failed to show up to the 2001 tryouts, and an exhaustive, muddy search led DeGlopper to former three-time NHL All-Star Rick Middleton.
Players were quick to remind Middleton that sled hockey players didn’t have to skate backwards during his first camp in Tampa, but the team changed. Five of Nagano’s 15 players returned in 2002 when scorer Joe Howard was joined by an influx of new talent such as Manns and Polish star Sylvester Flis, who earned his citizenship in 2001 before winning MVP of the Paralympics.
The team was divided into Midwestern boys and East Coast boys, said Manns, who was the second-youngest member of the team. We bumped into each other in every training camp and in Salt Lake City, but we all decided that once we got into the locker room for a game or practice, we would put all our differences aside.
Manns immediately confirmed his confidence and scored the first goal of the Paralympic Games in a 3-0 win over Japan. The United States defeated their opponents 22-3 in the preliminary round, with the only close call coming in a 2-1 win over Norway.
The United States met Norway again in the final, and it was the biggest moment of Mann’s career, just one day before the 11th anniversary of his accident. With a score of 3 through overtime, Manns was selected as one of the five participants in the shootout.
Trailing 2-1, Manns was the third striker for the United States. When Middleton called his name, he roared, Chris! Top corner, baby! Manns approached slowly, enough to require slow motion. But he chose his corner to tie the score, and Massachusetts native Kip St. Germainenette won the game on the next try.
There were 8,000 people there and it was so loud, but I could hear a pin drop, Manns said. I don’t know how I blocked all the noise. As I go out to get the puck, I think, don’t screw this up. I just dropped my left shoulder, the keeper bit it and I shot just over his left shoulder. Then it was like a switch flipped and I heard everything. It was electric.
Manns won bronze at the 2006 Paralympic Games and gold at the 2009 World Championships, but his biggest impact came when the sport exploded in the wake of winning in 2002.
Within five years, 50-pound sleds became lighter and more compact. Solid one-piece wooden poles were largely replaced by composite inserts.
USA Hockey began sponsoring and running the national team after the 2006 Paralympic Games and established a grassroots program that spawned new teams across the country along with a national development camp. And after the United States women’s soccer team filed a lawsuit for equal pay, sled hockey players began receiving an annual salary.
The national sled hockey boom turned the country into the best in the world, winning four Paralympic gold medals, going 18-1 and beating opponents 97-6 from 2010 to 2022.
The Winter Paralympics had four disciplines in three sports in 2002 and expanded to 78 events across five sports in 2022, while turning limited cable television into a nationally televised event.
It was a knock-on effect of things that happened to that 2002 team, said Taylor Lipsett, a three-time gold medalist and American hockey board member. USA Hockey started investing money at the grassroots level. It’s not to say we wouldn’t have gotten there in the end, but I don’t think we would have gotten there on the timeline. I don’t think you can argue that this is the most successful Paralympic program in American history.
There are few areas where sled hockey has grown as much as in Western New York. The Niagara Challengers junior program and the Buffalo Freeze adult team were renamed Buffalo Sabers when the organization began sponsoring in 2005. Now 23 organizations in the United States and Canada are sponsored by NHL teams.
Western New York became the pinnacle of sled hockey as national tryouts and development camps were constantly held in Buffalo and Rochester. By Mann’s final season with the United States in 2009, five Western New Yorkers were on the national team. Six have won Paralympic gold medals since 2002 and 17 Buffalo Sabers sled hockey players have played on national or development teams.
Multiple players moved to Buffalo to train for the 2010 Paralympic Games, and Buffalo captured its first two national championships when USA Hockey instituted the tournament in 2011.
(In the 2010 Paralympic team) four of the 15 boys were from the Buffalo program, said DeGlopper, who was also a longtime coach of the Buffalo adult team. … Everyone got to see the glory that had been brought over Chris and I think everyone sat there and said: If he did it, I can definitely try it too.
In a speech shortly after the Paralympics, captain of the 1980 Miracle on Ice team Mike Eruzione called the 2002 team the real miracle. The United States has not won an Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey since 1980. It has won five of the seven Paralympic Games ever.
Seeing that 02 team motivated me and made the job harder, said Mason Newbold, a Lockport native who played for the US development team from 2006-2012. …I didn’t even know there was a development team. The 02 team sort of exploited that as we got older and took it a little more seriously.
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