Every year, the top event at the Viscardi Center in Albertson is its annual Celebrity Sports Night.
This spring, the center celebrated its 47-year partnership with the New York Islanders by inviting former Islanders great Bobby Nystrom as its star guest. Nystrom was joined by current Islander star Ryan Pulock and such former teammates as John Tonelli, Butch Goring, and Steve Webb.
The Islanders all signed autographs and posed for photos with eager students. Nystrom was given a Lifetime Achievement Award and Tim Leiweke, CEO of Oak View Group, with the Corporate Leadership Award. This year’s Roy Campanella Award recipient was Steph Roach, the world’s first CrossFit Level 2 Trainer with Cerebral Palsy and who attended Henry Viscardi School for several years.
Also attending the fundraiser was Olympic figure skater Emily Hughes and former New York Jets Wesley Walker and John Nitti.
The night was about more than fundraising and a cocktail reception. It also featured seniors on the Viscardi wheelchair basketball team being awarded medals from the Islanders, while winding up with a moving rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by a group of Viscardi students.
The evening was special in that it also recognized the special link between the Islanders and the Viscardi Center. That began as noted, in 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial. Islanders’ players, including Nystrom, traveled to Albertson to take part in a spirited game of wheelchair hockey. A video on how the relationship took off can be viewed by googling “Celebrating Our Partnership with Long Island’s Home Team, the NY Islanders.”
That bond was forged when a girlfriend of Islanders defenseman Gerry Hart suggested such an annual game to the then-Viscardi Center’s president, Henry Viscardi, Jr. The irrepressible Viscardi said yes and nearly a half century later, the bond is going strong.
Still, the evening was a melancholy event. Hart died only days earlier on May 18 at age 75. Nystrom remembered not only Hart but also Clark Gillies, Jean Potvin and Mike Bossy, other members of the 1970s Islanders who have died since January 2022.
“He just had a very good way of meeting people,” Nystrom said of Gerry Hart in an interview with NHL.com., adding that Islanders’ fans were “the best fans in the world. They treated us like kings.”
“I think the most important thing is the longevity of this place and what they do with the kids,” Nystrom said speaking of The Viscardi Center. “It was something that we looked forward to every year and I think the kids loved it also. We also had the opportunity to watch the kids develop, and that’s one of the most rewarding things to me.”
“One of our first events was here and one of the students that I played against is here tonight,” added Steve Webb. “I told him, ‘You guys played pretty intense and I’ve probably still got some bruises on my shins from that.’ It was pretty impressive.
“It’s the overall community the kids have here that’s giving people the opportunity to soar in an environment. They have comfort and they have people that support them and can assist them during the journey. That radiates for everybody when we walk in the door.”
“It’s important for these communities and for the kids that are able to come to the school here and get to experience different sports and different opportunities for them,” Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock said. “The work they do here is amazing and just being able to come out this night and show my support is huge. I look forward to doing that more in the future.”
New York Governor Kathy Hochul delivered her own tribute to both of these durable institutions, while Dr. Chris Rosa, Viscardi president and CEO, lauded the efforts of UBS Arena to create an inclusive barrier-free design providing accessibility to the disabled.
State Senator Patricia Canzoneri-Fitzpatrick (R-Malverne) tweeted:
It was a pleasure to attend The Viscardi Center’s Celebrity Sports Night! This event is held in support of children and adults with disabilities who rely on The Viscardi Center for education, employment, and empowerment services.”
The Viscardi Center, a network of non-profit organizations, provides a lifespan of services that educate, employ, and empower people with disabilities. Its programs and services include Pre-K through High School education (to age 21), school-to-work transition services, vocational training and job placement, digital accessibility services, entrepreneurship, veteran employment and workforce diversification assistance to children, adolescents, and adults with disabilities and businesses.
—Information provided by The Viscardi Center and NHL.com.