The FDNY and NYPD hockey teams play in several tournaments throughout the year, but one game matters more to both teams than all the rest.
So when the annual “Hockey Heroes” matchup between the teams of first responders, in honor of 9/11, was canceled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, it felt like a punch to the gut.
“Our entire season is really only for that one game,” Fire Lieutenant Joseph Sanger told The Post by the phone Wednesday. “It doesn’t matter what tournaments we go to, what tournaments we win or lose, how we do in our men’s league that we play in. It basically just comes down to this one game.”
The FDNY and NYPD will take the ice again Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, honoring the 20th anniversary of 9/11 with a special pregame ceremony beginning at 7:30 p.m. And, for the first time in its 47-year existence, the game will air live, on ESPN2, at 8 p.m.
The FDNY currently leads the all-time series with 25 wins to the NYPD’s 18, with two games ending in ties.
Both teams will honor those lost in the terrorist attacks and all who have died since 2001 from 9/11-related illnesses. Firefighters and police officers lost in the line of duty over the past two years will also be remembered, and proceeds will be donated to various charities, including the Ray Pfeifer Foundation, which helps 9/11 first responders with medical needs not covered by insurance, and the PBA Widows and Children’s Fund.
Tickets from the previously scheduled 2020 game will be reissued. Those attending will be expected to provide either proof of full COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test, as per current government mandates.
Detective Mark Gurleski, who doubles as a left wing, said that he would describe the event as “the most intense charity hockey game you’re ever gonna see.”
“Everybody hears charity game and they think it’s gonna be like people laughing, having a good time on the ice, taking pictures and stuff like that,” said Gurleski, who is from Seaford on Long Island. “But they don’t realize that it’s like a cutthroat game where we go out there and kill each other.”
Sanger, a 37-year-old defenseman from Staten Island, said he expects the event’s return will mean a lot to the participants after what the city’s first responders endured this past year. While Sanger wasn’t in the field during the aftermath of the attacks that destroyed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, his father was.
“I’ll never forget coming home, two or three days after 9/11, and seeing a grown man sitting there with a list of names that were missing at the time, with tears in his eyes,” Sanger said. “Saying, ‘I just lost all my friends.’ So it means a lot [to be involved].
“The words ‘never forget,’ we’re instilled with it because we go to work every day, we see the names on the boards of the people that didn’t get to come home that day. It means a lot when we hear the words never forget, because you always want to keep them in memory.”