Norm Page remembers the goal like it was scored yesterday, but how could any proud parent forget? The most dramatic moments in sports are forever saved to memory and available for further examination, as if they can be pulled from the filing cabinet in our brains until eternity.
The United States’ rivalry with Canada stretches across all levels of hockey, men and women, boys and girls. The seventh defenseman for the Buffalo Regals has the same disdain for the Markham Majors that the first-line center for Team USA has when playing Canada in the Olympics.
We don’t like them.
They don’t like us.
So, yeah, maybe extra juices already were flowing when St. Mary’s of Lancaster senior Adam Page gave the Americans a 1-0 lead over Canada in the 2009 world championships of sled hockey in the Czech Republic. Sure enough, Canada forced overtime with a goal late in the final minutes of the third period.
Neither team scored in OT. Each team failed on its first five attempts in the shootout. Finally, Page grabbed the puck on the sixth attempt and scored for a 2-1 victory, giving him the go-ahead goal and the shootout winner while handing the U.S. its first-ever victory over Canada in the world championships.
“It was something you never, ever, ever forget,” Norm Page said. “It was crazy. He was 17 years old, representing his country and doing all these things. It’s truly a dream come true for him. As a parent, to watch your kid live his dream, it’s powerful, powerful stuff.”
It was the biggest goal of Adam’s career, but it was not The Goal. The goal was to be like the other kids and, in that respect, he failed miserably. He’s anything but a normal kid given what he’s overcome and what he’s accomplished.
Page suffered from spina bifida, which left him paralyzed from the kneecap down since birth. He treated the disorder like a minor nuisance, a speed bump. It has become his blessing, his ticket to hockey around the world. He’s already played in South Korea, Japan and Norway. He won a gold medal in the 2010 Paralympics in Vancouver.
Next up: Sochi.
“When we put on that USA jersey, we’re like any other sport at that level,” Page said. “Our compete level is just the same. We’re there representing the front of the jersey. If you don’t come out to play, you’re toast. The other teams are just as competitive. On any given night, you’re dead.”
Strange, but he could have been dead shortly after he was delivered seven weeks premature, weighing 5 pounds, five ounces, in 1992. He entered the world with his lower spine exposed, a disorder often detected on sonograms but overlooked in his case. In the hours after he was born, he was susceptible to infections that could have killed him.
His parents watched him overcome 12 surgeries. If he only knew how many sleepless night his parents endured and how many tears they shed during his childhood. Norm and Sandy Page wanted their son to lead a normal life, just like the other kids. Instead, he exceeded the expectations of any parent.
In the interest of full disclosure, if not to prove that Western New York operates by two degrees of separation and not six, I first met him when he was 3 years old. I bought my first house in Hamburg from his parents in 1995, when he was in the early stages of mobilization. Our paths didn’t cross again until earlier this month.
Who knew he would become so productive?
He’s 21 years old now, a sports-management major at Medaille College who is scheduled to graduate next year. His capacity for falling down and getting back up, figuratively and literally, sits at the core of a young man who refused to use crutches as a crutch, who proved his disability was trivial when standing alongside his ability.
Sharing his gifts
In recent years, Page has evolved into a motivational public speaker. Companies have summoned him to share his story with their employees with the idea they can become less whiny and more productive. He’s a humble, intelligent person whose strengths from the neck up compensate for his weaknesses from the kneecap down.
“He has hidden gifts,” his father said. “People are given gifts that other people don’t believe are gifts. They think they’re tragedies or obstacles. For us, for Adam, we think they’re gifts. And they really do bear fruit. Adam truly understands that.”
Hockey is part of Adam’s success, but a small part. He became smitten with the sport after his father took him to a Sabres game in 1996-97. Three years later, when he was 10, Adam joined a sled-hockey program in Buffalo. He was hooked on the pace of skating from the moment he took the ice.
His first sled weighed 50 pounds and was made after his father unscrewed blades from hockey skates and attached them to plywood. He scored his first goal in his first tournament and never looked back. He kept plugging, kept working, kept improving like any other player with the same desire.
Page is competitive, athletic and strong. His upper-body strength comes from years of pulling himself along the ice. He also worked out with Sports Performance Training in the Northtown Center at Amherst. He can bench press 245 pounds, you know, just like the other kids.
“The craziest work ethic I’ve ever seen was Drew Stafford,” said his trainer, John Opfer. “We can argue his goals or his production, but that guy is a maniac. Adam is right there with him. For an hour, his heart races like a rabbit. He doesn’t stop.”
Sled hockey is similar to standup hockey with its defensive systems and forechecking strategies. The game gets faster as sleds, now about 10 pounds, become lighter. It can look like smash-up derby with all the hitting. Four years ago, a line brawl against Russia was caught on a video that went viral. Page was on the bench.
“I remember trying to go out the door,” he said, “and my coach pulling me back.”
Buffalo has become a sled-hockey hotbed. Alexei Salamone was an international star who was left off the team. He was born in Russia after the disaster in Chernobyl, was rescued from an orphanage and grew up in Grand Island. He was excited about returning to Russia before falling victim to a youth movement.
A leader among men
Page, who made the national team at age 15, has evolved into one of its leaders. The Paralympics have become an extension of the Winter Games, and he’ll travel to Sochi next month with the rest of the U.S. team. Every player on every team has overcome obstacles en route to the highest level.
He’ll be joined by Paul Schaus, a Purple Heart winner from Cheektowaga fallen after an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan took both legs at the knee. Schaus’ cousin, Nick, is playing professionally in Europe. Another cousin, Molly Schaus, is a goaltender for the U.S. women’s team that won silver in Vancouver and will compete in Sochi.
Schaus is one of several military veterans on the U.S. team. Everybody comes with a story of tragedy and triumph. Captain Andy Yohe lost his legs while jumping a train as a kid. Goalie Jen Lee lost his in a motorcycle accident. Goalie Steve Cash beat cancer. Forward Brody Roybal was born without femurs.
Page believes he was fortunate to be born with the disorder and, therefore, never had a drastic change in his lifestyle. He participated in karate, rode horses and played baseball for challenged kids throughout his childhood. A few years ago, he took up downhill skiing to take his mind away from hockey.
He drives a car like anyone else, without hand controls. His parents were nervous about him driving after he passed his road test. Every morning, without Adam knowing, Norm Page trailed his son’s car to school. A month passed before Norm stopped worrying, that Adam was, in fact, just an ordinary kid.
All along, that was The Goal.
“It’s always been that way with him,” Norm Page said. “If he didn’t see the problem, we didn’t either.”
Norm, the kid is worth following.