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Bender Classic Hockey Tradition Continues Growing And Benefiting Special Olympics



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STORRS — When the Newtown High School hockey team visits the E.O. Smith Tolland co-op at the University of Connecticut in Storrs for a 4:30 puck drop on Saturday, January 7, there will be a game-within-the-game and a fundraiser that is sure to be a hit on top of the fun and hits during the high school matchup.

For the third consecutive year, the NHS Nighthawks are a part of the Bender Classic which has developed into an annual on-ice, between-periods, clash between police departments to benefit Special Olympics.

“We call it the Bender Classic to embrace the fact that we are all trying something new, and the expectation isn't that we're great at it, but that we have fun in the process of self improvement,” said Newtown Police Sergeant William Chapman, who has been part of this tradition since it began.

Chapman, who is also supervises the Newtown High School resource officers, notes that in hockey a bender is someone who can't skate, so the slang is appropriate for the skill level of those involved.

It all started during the 2020-21 winter with two dads who were getting their young children involved in hockey and decided to lace up skates alongside them: Chapman and Newtown High School Athletic Director Matt Memoli. They built rinks in their backyards and started to jump on the ice with their kids.

The biggest hurdle was the fact that neither of them had ever skated before, Chapman noted. Both are big fans of Special Olympics and Unified Sports and have long admired the athletes who consistently live up to one of the hallmarks of the organization — being "Brave in the Attempt,” which is also featured within the Special Olympics motto.

Newtown/New Fairfield Nighthawk Hockey Head Coach Paul Esposito laid out a challenge to Chapman and Memoli to attend a practice and face each other one-on-one. With only weeks to prepare and extremely limited skating ability, both had to kick the bravery up a notch as they invited the community to join them by using the event to raise awareness and funds for the Special Olympics.

With generous participation from Hoser Hockey — a company founded by Sean McVey, one of Esposito's former players when he coached at Immaculate High in Danbury — and Danbury Ice Arena, home of the Nighthawks, the Bender Classic was born. The event was a huge success in its first year, raising over $5,000 for Special Olympics.

Both competitors were able to (mostly, Chapman noted) keep their feet under them. Chapman outscored Memoli and became the event's inaugural champion.

The following year Memoli was unable to participate due to an injury and was tasked with selecting his successor to compete against Chapman. In a dramatic move, Memoli selected Chapman's then-partner, School Resource Officer Matt Hayes.

A social media hype campaign with all the pageantry of a WWE rivalry ensued before Chapman and Hayes faced off against each other between periods at a game between Newtown/New Fairfield, and Chapman's Alma Mater, E.O. Smith High School, coached by none other than Chapman's former high school guidance counselor, John Hodgson. It was a very close match, but Chapman was able to retain the Bender Classic trophy, and another $5,000 was raised.

“Now here we are: In our third year, it was easily decided that the spirit and generosity that the E.O. Smith/Tolland players, parents, and staff brought had to be a permanent fixture in the event. E.O. Smith High School bought in fully and agreed to host the 2023 Bender Classic on their home ice, the Mark Edward Frietas Ice Forum at the University of Connecticut,” Chapman said.

The UConn Police Department has stepped up to defend its house on behalf of E.O. Smith/Tolland, so now Chapman and Hayes will get the chance to be on the same team and defend Chapman’s/Newtown’s title from a fierce team of Huskies.

This year Hayes and Chapman are joined by Officer Pete Wlasuk.

“Pete graduated from Newtown High School, went to college at UConn, then joined NPD. So there's a good plot of conflicting allegiances at play in his character arc,” said Chapman, whose Newtown trio will compete against UConn Police Officers Rene Rivera, Dean Vertefeuille, and Bill Funk.

“I am beyond excited for this event. What has been amazing this year is watching it grow beyond our wildest dreams and seeing the excitement spread beyond our community. With generous sponsorship from the Beylouni family and the Colonial Automobile Group, Hoser Hockey, Men's League Sweaters, Rankin Textile Printing, Safer Schools Together, Different Strokes of Alaska, and Superior Signs of Monroe, as well as publicity support from ESPN Radio and iheartmedia, we have been able to take it to the next level,” Chapman said.

“Of course, the best part and the part that matters most: the opportunities that the funds generated will provide to our local Unified and Special Olympics athletes. Sports have brought me so much joy and taught me so many wonderful lessons in life. Every kid deserves the opportunity to experience that, and disabilities should never stand in the way,” Chapman added.

“With the enthusiastic support of the Newtown, E.O. Smith, and UConn communities, we are on track to make this the best year yet. We have a fundraising goal of $20,000. The support grows, the stages get bigger, and the donations keep rolling in,” Chapman said. “There is no telling what the future holds for the Bender Classic, but we know that as long as we continue to be 'Brave in the Attempt,' it will always be a success.”

For information and to donate, visit benderclassichockey.com

Sports Editor Andy Hutchison can be reached at andyh@thebee.com.

Newtown Police Sergeant William Chapman, left, will be joined by Officers Matt Hayes and Pete Wlasuk to take on a trio of UConn Police Department officers in the Third Annual Bender Classic, a hockey scrimmage to benefit Special Olympics. The event will take place when Newtown High School’s hockey team visits the E.O. Smith Tolland co-op at UConn in Storrs on January 7. —photos courtesy William Chapman
UConn officers Rene Rivera, Dean Vertefeuille, and Bill Funk are slated to participate in the Third Annual Bender Classic.
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