BUFFALO, N.Y. — Back in 2008, Mike Steffan and his wife Pam used to have to travel to Rochester weekly so their son Ryan could play the sport he loved- hockey. Ryan has Down's Syndrome and there was no team for him or other athletes with special needs in the Buffalo area at the time.
"Mike and I talked. We said there has to be...other individuals in Buffalo that want to play. That was the beginning of the dream," recalled Pam.
The WNY Special Hockey Association was born. It started with 15 players and has now grown to more than 40 players of all skill levels practicing every Sunday morning at the North Buffalo Ice Rink on Tacoma Avenue.
The current players range in age from 8 to 48, and despite their differences, they all play for the same reason:
"Just hockey for the love of hockey," said Pam. "That was not a dream that any of these kids thought that would ever happen for them. It just wasn't out there. And then it was."
Within a few years of starting the organization, Mike was able to get the support and financial backing of the Buffalo Sabres, and the league became known as the Buffalo Sabres Thunder. It's now the only special needs hockey team that is registered with USA Hockey and the American Special Hockey Association (ASHA) in the Buffalo area.
"A lot of programs you see when we go to different tournaments, they're not as fortunate as we are, and that was Mike's doing," said Gary Panek, one of the Thunder coaches who was with the Steffans from day one. Panek's son Jimmy, now 28-years-old is a goalie on the team. He says Jimmy loving playing, not just for the game, but for the camaraderie, exercise, and for the feeling that he can do what all other typically-abled athletes can do.
Steffan was civil engineer by day, but WNY Special Hockey was his passion. He never missed a single practice or game until last April when he started to feel sick.
"We didn't find out until approximately 10 days before he passed away that he had some serious cancer," said Pam.
Even when he was in the hospital during his final days, he streamed the final tournament from his bed and watched as the players raised their hockey sticks in the air at the end as a tribute to him.
"He was a wonderful awesome man who did a good job coaching the hockey team," said player Brendan Curry.
Player Dominic Caruana said he misses Coach Mike greatly.
"He was a great coach, a great man and we loved him a lot," said Caruana. "We miss him so much. We always think about him every week. We wanna make Coach Mike proud."
The Buffalo Sabres posthumously awarded Coach Mike Steffan as the 2023 recipient of the J. Michael Duffett Memorial Award for his contributions to amateur hockey. He was honored during a Sabres game in December.
"What a beautiful memory. It was absolutely a wonderful legacy for our family, the team and for Mike," said Pam.
Mike's legacy will live on each time one of the players and future players step on the ice.
"I know he's smiling. I know his spirit's with us. And I know he'd be so happy," said Pam.
In addition to leading the WNY Special Hockey Association, Steffan served on the board of directors of Glory Be to Kids and the Touching Bases Baseball League, volunteered for SABAH and Gliding Stars, and was as an assistant coach for Special Olympics basketball, baseball, floor hockey, and hiking.
"In the special needs community, there aren't many people who don't know who Mike Steffan was. He made a lasting impact and he'll be missed," said Panek.
The Buffalo Sabres Thunder plays out of town in tournaments against other special hockey programs in the United States and Canada, and host their own tournament at Harborcenter in Buffalo. They also play in local scrimmage games with local high school and travel hockey teams and Pam said she often hears from the other teams that it is their favorite game of the year, because in addition to raising disability awareness, they are reminded from the Thunder players why they truly love the game of hockey.
To learn more about the Buffalo Sabres Thunder and the WNY Special Hockey Association, click here.
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