Minutes into the game, goalie Corey Marko kicks at the puck, stifling a scoring chance and keeping his team on top for now. Not a remarkable save by even youth hockey standards, Corey's simple maneuver turns extraordinary for one important reason. Corey has no feet.
He was born 13 years ago without a fibula or shin bone -- in either leg. Without amputation just above the ankles, Corey would face life from a wheelchair, his family was told.
"When he was a month old, the doctor said that if we want Corey to be able to run to first base, we would have to amputate his feet," said Kathy Marko, Corey's mother. "Basically we knew what we had to do in order for him to have any kind of normal life."
The surgery was performed, and by the time Corey was eight months old he was kicking his legs up like all babies, only his were casted and his kicks were so strong that he forced the casts off. By age 11 months, Corey was fitted for prosthetics. He ended his first year with his first pair of prosthetic legs.
"When I look at him today I say, 'Oh my God, we're so lucky,'" Mrs. Marko said, watching her son play hockey. Standing at ice level, Corey towers a head above most of his teammates on the Grand Niagara Cataracts. At 6-foot-1, Corey has outgrown nine pairs of prosthetics, his most recent pair of legs lasting only nine months. By the end of the season, Corey and his right-winger brother, Ryan, figure they will have participated in about 75 games including out-of-town tourneys.
Right now though, Corey is focused on challenging his opponent. He skates out from the net. After spending several hours watching Corey in action both on and off ice it becomes startlingly clear that for this not-so-typical teenager, the sky may pose no limit.
"I want to be 7-foot-8," he said, sitting at the kitchen table of his Amherst home, surrounded at one time or another by both parents, grandmother, big sister Danielle, kid brother Ryan, and Bandit, a blue-eyed Huskie.
As Corey speaks, his eyes smile. The banter between him and his father, Paul Marko, is constant and irreverent. It becomes obvious that humor has already taken this teenager a long way.
"Just to kind of lighten up the locker room in my first year of hockey -- we won one game all year -- I would turn my legs around, so my feet were backward and it worked most of the time," Corey said. "I can crack jokes about it, and some people ask me how I can do that about my situation. I'm used to it. It doesn't bother me."
Like on hockey road trips which serve as mini-vacations for this family -- Corey takes off his legs and offers them to the Thruway toll takers before tossing them in the back of the truck. And a routine school exercise such as "Show and Tell" takes on new meaning when it comes Corey's turn to face the class.
"When Corey started kindergarten, I was in fifth grade," said Danielle Marko. "On the bus ride home, some little kid started to make fun of him. I yelled at him, but Corey said: 'If you don't stop, I'll take my leg off and beat you over the head.'"
"When I was younger, you could tell something was wrong when I walked," Corey recalled. "My feet didn't bend. I grew up getting used to it, and it took a while for me to be able to do everything I do now."
Corey uses a term to describe the series of compromises he has made in life. He calls them "give-ins," how this innovative youngster manages to dance around the pitfalls of disability. "Like when I'm playing goalie," he begins. "When goalies get up, they use their ankles to spring them up, and since I don't have ankles I use a blade on the inside of my skate that helps me get up. Without that, I wouldn't be able to do what I do."
As for those unbending feet, Corey's new "athletic" versions sport arches and flexible toes spurring yet another sporting ambition -- basketball, maybe as center for the Sweet Home Middle School's modified team. After all, he already plays baseball, at times stopping some balls with his legs, just like a goalie should.
With all of the attention on athleticism, does Corey have time for anything else? His eighth-grade average last quarter was 97. He really scored a 103 in math, he said, but the highest the school gives is 100.
"I've been interested in girls since I was five. I go to movies with girls. I go to parties with girls," he said, mentioning the name Stephanie. His newest CD is by Ja Rule. He has two looks for school: preppy and dress-down jeans. Always hair gel. When he isn't talking about being a spokesman for Adidas, he mentions the possibility of becoming a lawyer.
But for now, hockey is his priority. On Saturday, he plans to participate in a fund-raiser that will benefit Children's Hospital and the Robert Warner Rehab Center. As an alumnus of the center, Corey is looking forward to playing in goal during a portion of the benefit hockey game that will start at 7 p.m. at the Buffalo State College ice rink.
"I never complain about goalies because I know how it is," he said. "Brodeur, I like his style. He's really quick and agile, goes from side to side. And I like Cechmanek, because he comes out really far and goes on his butt."
Wait a minute. Isn't there another Czech goalie that could have influenced Corey?
"I lost respect for Hasek just because of the fact that he was looking for more money. I don't know how the players who play pro sports want a hundred million dollars. Take the money you're offered and play the sport you love or else go work at McDonald's."