Two young athletes from Western New York may be strutting their skills on ice today under the watchful eye of the most controversial political figure in the world – Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.
Putin already has attended the Russia-South Korea sled hockey game at the Sochi Paralympics, and there were strong but unconfirmed reports late Monday that he would be in the stands again today (8:30 a.m. Buffalo time) to see the Russia-USA game. The American team features forwards Adam Page of Lancaster and Paul Schaus of North Tonawanda.
“It would be pretty amazing to play in front of President Putin,” said Norm Page, Adam’s father and the national sled hockey representative for USA Hockey. “There obviously are differences in culture and in our beliefs, but for our sled hockey team to play in front of him would be pretty incredible.”
Norm Page, in Sochi along with his wife, Sandy, has been pleasantly surprised by the response of the Russian people to the Americans, during the height of the international war of words over Ukraine and Crimea.
The Russian fans want their photos taken with Americans. They see an American flag, and they immediately want to exchange pleasantries or pose for pictures. The only conflicts or tensions noticed by American visitors come on CNN.
“There’s no animosity here toward Americans at all,” Page said. “That’s the most surprising thing. They have welcomed us with open arms. Other than what we’ve seen on TV, we’ve heard nothing and seen nothing here about the Ukraine situation.”
Page and other Americans didn’t know what to expect in Sochi, whether people in the medium-sized resort town would embrace the Paralympics.
“The electricity, with the people here, we had no clue,” he said. “I thought we were going to see a half-empty stadium for the opening ceremony. It was sold out, it was completely jammed, and it was electric.”
Page said Sochi reminds him of Buffalo.
“It’s not a huge city. I think everybody is so excited to have the Games here, and they’re so supportive. This is so important to this city.”
Page also was asked about the Russian people’s attitudes toward the disabled athletes, especially following the international furor over that nation’s treatment of gays.
“These are human beings now being accepted in Russia,” Page said of the disabled athletes. “To see that as a father of a disabled son myself, that’s very powerful to all of us. To see it happening in Russia, it gives us all hope.”
On the ice, heading into today’s game with Russia, the U.S. sled hockey team is 2-0, following a 5-1 win over Italy and a 3-0 victory over South Korea. As they often have been in international competition, the Americans might be on a collision course to play Canada in the finals, although that didn’t happen in Vancouver. The U.S. won Paralympic gold four years ago, defeating Japan, which had knocked out the host Canadians in the semifinals.
Adam Page, in his second Paralympics, scored two goals in the victory over South Korea on Sunday. Both have been shown on ESPN “SportsCenter’s” top weekend plays, as play number 10. On the second goal, Page raced around a South Korean defenseman, switched the puck to his left hand and fired a rocket under the goalie’s arm.
But a postscript to his first goal Sunday, a day before his 22nd birthday, may be more meaningful to his family.
That’s when Page scored on a rebound, assisted by Dan McCoy of Pittsburgh. Both have spina bifida, prompting the father of a 6-year-old boy with spina bifida to reach out to both players, via a Facebook message to USA Sled Hockey. The boy has just started playing sled hockey.
“He felt that Adam and Danny were heroes, and he hoped some day his son got to meet Adam and Danny,” Norm Page said, as he battled with his emotions. “We’re going to make that happen.
“That’s what it’s all about.”