By Rick Pfeiffer
Niagara Gazette — March madness is returning to the Falls on Saturday night.
No, not NCAA basketball March Madness, though Falls cops say they’d like to have a “shinning moment.” This madness is the annual Falls Police versus Falls Firefighters Charity Hockey game.
Except for a shinning moment two years ago, it’s a game that city firefighters have tended to dominate.
“I’m not going to talk smack,” Firefighter Chris Finitz, a fire team member said this week. “I remember our collapse two years ago.”
In 2011, the firefighters’ team was up by two goals with just two minutes left to play. But the police team rallied to tie the game and, with just seven seconds left in regulation, a “wrister” from Officer Brendan Gee found the net and won the game for the city cops.
A year later, the game returned to form with a firefighter victory. Finitz credits the firefighters’ dominance to the team’s experience.
“Some of the guys on our team have been skating together longer than I’ve been a fireman,” the nine year veteran of the department said. “It’s something we love to do. Every Thursday we put on our skates and play (at the Hyde Park Ice Pavilion).”
This year though, the police team may have an opening. Finitz confirmed his team’s top two goaltenders are out, along with star forwards John Donaldson and Tamara Stewart.
“But you know, we have a waiting list of guys looking for ice time,” Finitz said. “So they’ll get a chance to step up.”
Finitz said he’s had a chance to skate with the police team at one of their practices and said, “Their team looks pretty good.”
Police team members Officer Paul Kudela and Tom Arist have also skated with their firefighter counterparts and admit they face a tough challenge on Saturday night.
“Tthe firefighters) are fast and they’re good,” Kudela, the son of a Falls firefighter, said.
The police team will also play without some of their top players in Officers Dan Bird and Kevin Maluchnik. But Kudela says goaltender Rich Abramowski had been playing “lights out.”
Kudela hopes, with the core players on the team now entering their third year of playing together, that experience will make a difference for his team.
“This is our third year of the same lines and the same gang of guys,” Kudela said. “Hopefully that is going to give us some cohesiveness.”
Of course, the bottom line for both teams, above winning and losing, is raising money for deserving charities. This year, the police team will be playing for Roswell Park Cancer Institute while the firefighters will play for their toy fund.
“We chose Roswell Park to honor (Officer) Bill Gee and (Officer) Danny Perini, whose daughter (Danni), is battling cancer,” Kudela said. “We feel that’s an important cause.”
This year will mark a return to support of the toy fund by the firefighter’s team. The fund faced daunting financial demands last year and Finitz said he and his teammates will do all they can to help.
“It gets tougher and tougher for (the toy fund) every year to get the donations they need,” Finitz said. “Anything we can do to help them, we will.”
Both teams say they’re hoping for a record breaking turn-out. The puck drops at 8 p.m. at the Hyde Park Ice Pavilion, with tickets selling for just $5.
“I hope people can make it out,” Finitz said. “It’s a lot of fun. We put a good product on the ice and raise some money for good charities.”
Kudela echoed that sentiment, calling it “a good time, for a good cause.”
“But,” he added, “winning would be nice too.”IF YOU GO • WHAT: Annual Falls Police vs. Fire Charity Hockey Game • WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday • WHERE: Hyde Park Ice Pavilion • WHY: To benefit the Falls Firefighters Toy Fund and Roswell Park Cancer Institute