By Nancy Haggerty
ELMSFORD — Steve Grossman remembers his happiness when his son, Michael, was born 14 years ago.
He had two daughters. But a son? Chauvinistic or not, Grossman’s mind fast-forwarded to baseballs and footballs and years of playing catch.
Fast-forward to last Sunday. Hockey is the Grossmans’ sport, and Steve, who plays for the Ice Breakers in Hockey North America — a beginner adult league — was helping to coach Michael’s team at Elmsford’s Westchester Skating Academy.
At 5-foot-8-plus, Michael is taller than his dad and is, at least backward, a better skater.
But Michael’s focus is sometimes far removed from the game. And it might always be that way.
“When you find out your son has autism, it’s devastating,” Grossman said.
Michael was between 18 months and 2 years old and wasn’t talking when diagnosed.
“Half the time he is in our world, and half the time he is in his world,” Grossman said.
Hockey, though, is a vehicle for Michael to become more engaged.
Last year, the Ice Breakers were in the playoffs, and Michael and his sister, Caitlin, now 24, were in the stands.
While being somewhere never necessarily means Michael knows what’s going on, he suddenly yelled, “Score a goal, Daddy.”
Seconds later, his dad buried the winning goal.
Grossman, 49, cites this and Michael cheering at a recent game when saying, “He gets a little bit of it. He may not get it in the way we get it, but he gets it. … Stuff like that, I get a tear in my eye.”
Hockey became their sport seven years ago, when Michael joined the nearly 30-member, Elmsford-based New York Raptors. The Raptors’ roster includes other kids with autism, kids with Down syndrome, kids with attention deficit disorder. The list goes on. One player has had 13 brain surgeries due to seizures.
That’s where the Grossmans were Sunday — on Raptors ice — a safe harbor of acceptance.
Noting that the Raptors’ players are sometimes mocked and bullied elsewhere, Grossman said, “People need to teach their kids not everyone is the same.”
That’s one goal of Saturday’s two-game Raptors fundraiser, which Grossman, the team’s vice-president, is coordinating.
The Winter Classic at White Plains’ Ebersole Ice Rink includes a 3:30 p.m. game between the Ice Breakers and HNA Lightning. At 5:15 p.m., the Raptors will face the Long Island Blues, another special-needs team.
HNA is renting the ice. There’s no admission fee, but multiple raffles for everything from party food, to sports equipment, to a framed Rangers Winter Classic victory print (with a piece of goal net) will be held.
Tickets to an American Hockey League game between the Islanders’ affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, and the Rangers’ affiliate, the Connecticut Whale, are the “Chuck-a-Puck” prize.
There will be opening and closing ceremonies, and medals for every kid.
“I want these kids — even for one day, for four hours — to feel no different from other kids,” said Grossman, a contractor and single dad.
Grossman, who started playing ice hockey soon after Michael, will play, then serve as an on-ice assistant during Michael’s game.
“We try to keep (players) in the game rather than circling the ice,” he said. “When a little thing clicks, I tell you, the rest of the world doesn’t know what life is.”
It clicked for Michael, when, on his own, he pursued a puck into the corner during a recent tournament, then passed to a teammate in front of the net.
Sounds simple. But, describing the play, Grossman repeated a phrase he has read: “Stealing a moment from autism.”
“It may take another 10 years before he does anything (that special) again, but who cares?” he said.
The Raptors, to Grossman, are as much about family —“You go every Sunday and you’re not an outsider” — as hockey.
Early Saturday, Grossman helped some Raptors moms sew team scarves for the Classic.
Later that day at home in Rye Brook, Grossman noted that, through hockey, he discovered that Michael (the third of four children) couldn’t visually track more than one thing at once. Therapy is now correcting that problem.
And hockey was Grossman’s literal lifesaver. Six years ago, he suffered a heart attack. Surgery followed.
“The doctor said I had a day to a month before I’d drop dead,” said Grossman, who had a 99 percent blockage of his coronary artery. “He said, ‘What saved you is that your heart is so strong from hockey that it compensated.’ ”
And so Grossman’s heart is into hockey and all that the game provides him and Michael.
“It’s just a great way for me to be with my son,” he said. “Twenty years ago, they were taking these kids and putting them in a corner.”
Asked about hockey, Michael, engrossed in winding, unwinding and rewinding a tie around his hand, said, “I love to skate.” Later, he confirmed that, yes, he’s a better skater than his dad.
On Sunday, he smiled and said hello by name to almost everyone in the locker room.
A couple of years back, Grossman said, players would slow so one Raptor with a walker could get the puck and shoot.
“Maybe if the whole world saw this, it would be a better place,” he said. “They work hard. They’re tough. A lot of us cry, bitch and moan. They work hard to be where they are and to do what they do.”
“My son is my hero,” Grossman said. “He’s my best friend.”