FDNY Bravest hockey team takes on Breckenridge Vipers and the ski slopes
FDNY defeats Vipers 7-1 in game to prep for Madison Square Garden match vs. NYPD
BRECKENRIDGE — For the members of the New York City Fire Department hockey team, April in Madison Square Garden is the one game they play the entire season for.
The game at the hallowed 18,202-seat midtown Manhattan venue know as “The World’s Most Famous Arena” has sold out for four consecutive years. On one side, family, friends and members of the New York City Police Department cheer on their brothers in blue. On the other, FDNY family, friends and firemen root on a team of players who don’t have a name on the back of their jerseys. Rather, each jersey reads “Bravest.”
“We don’t put names on it because we are one,” fireman Frank Heal said.
Tom Reno is FDNY Hockey’s general manager, head coach and a retired veteran of the the FDNY-NYPD game for nearly a quarter century. Before he donned the Bravest uniform for two decades, he played three years for the NYPD. He says the annual game, scheduled this year for April 4, is each department’s equivalent of the Army-Navy game.
“I am still honored to be a part of the team,” Reno said. “It’s always felt like ‘The Big Game.’ You feel like you’re a pro for a day. There’s guys in the NHL, I can assure you, who never played in (Madison Square Garden) with a sold-out crowd. And we play for the tradition of our job. No matter the hockey, we’re representing the firehouse and the job.”
Reno said the FDNY’s current half-vacation, half-hockey trip to Breckenridge, Vail and Aspen — its second team trip to the Rocky Mountains — is a crucial experience to prep the Bravest’s players for the April match. That’s because during games like Tuesday evening’s 7-1 win over the Breckenridge Vipers at Stephen C. West Ice Arena, the Bravest are able to play full-check hockey against semipro-caliber competition. During the rest of their season leading up to facing the NYPD, the games aren’t the kind of physical, full-check hockey they’ll play versus The Blue in April.
“Me, being the nut I am, I thought, ‘Let me see if I can get more games,'” Reno said. “So I reached out to Vail and Aspen, and we made a weeklong trip — one day off in each area. We’re playing four games in seven nights.
“Some guys on our team only see checking one time a year,” the coach added. “This is exactly what the doctor ordered for me.”
After the FDNY’s win over the Vipers, the teams shared food and drinks past midnight at Ollie’s Pub & Grub in Breckenridge. Despite the hard-hitting nature of the game, the two sides came together to celebrate the spirit of hockey. They reflected on a game where the FDNY team — regardless of winning — was reminded of the challenge of playing hockey above 9,000 feet.
“Some of our guys, after their shift, they’d go back to the bench and want to talk to their linemates,” FDNY goaltender Kurt Pflumm said. “And some of the guys were so tired they said, ‘I don’t want to talk to you right now. I’m so out of breath.'”
For the FDNY, to have the chance to come to Breckenridge, play high-level hockey, and ski and snowboard the resort’s slopes the next day is a unique team-bonding experience. And it’s one the Vipers and their sponsors helped to set up. The Vipers will do the same next month when the Bravest’s archrivals, the NYPD, visit Stephen C. West Ice Arena for a pair of night games Feb. 14–15.
Before they headed to Vail in an attempt to avenge a pair of losses last season, about a dozen FDNY players traded their skates for skis and snowboards Wednesday. Heal was with a group of five who enjoyed their time skiing and riding the intermediate blue runs on Peak 6, taking in the kind of above-timberline skiing off Kensho SuperChair that is once-in-a-lifetime for a New Yorker.
After hitting blue runs a few times, team member Dan Sieger suggested doing an advanced black diamond run. Heal said the group then dropped into Intuition, where they had a true 12,000-foot-high Rocky Mountain experience.
“Five feet in, we hit rocks,” Heal said with wide eyes. “I lost my skis. Then when we got down a little bit. We asked someone, ‘Left or right?’ He said, ‘Go left!’ It was moguls. I was telling our assistant coach before, ‘I didn’t fall the whole day, then I fell 10 times in 10 minutes.'”
Despite the tribulations on Peak 6, Heal couldn’t have been happier with his ski day. This, after all, is a trip to help bond the team, fundraise for the program in its 52nd year and to get better to beat The Blue.
“You know, I’d do it again,” Heal said with a laugh. “Tomorrow, I’ll go skiing in Vail!”
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