Ray Pfeifer doesn’t know which of his friends submitted his name to the New York Islanders. The former New York firefighter isn’t sure who told the team’s Hometown Hero initiative about how he had worked on the pile at Ground Zero for eight straight months, or how 12 guys from his ladder company died on 9/11, or how he spent the ensuing years fighting for health benefits for those poisoned by the attack — even though he was one of them, terminal cancer that is eating at his kidneys, bones and brain.
The 58-year-old Hicksville resident, who considers himself not so much a hero than a poster boy for a bigger movement, generally tries to eschew individual praise and says anyone who tries to cast him otherwise would be in for some flak.
But on Saturday afternoon, the lifelong Islanders fan made an exception. Before the game against the Pittsburgh Pengins, Pfeifer found himself at center ice, flanked by Sidney Crosby and John Tavares, dropping the ceremonial puck.
“There’s nobody who’s going to be more happy than me,” said Pfeifer on Friday, a day before he rolled out onto the ice on his wheelchair to drop the puck to thunderous applause. “To be in that venue, just to be in front of a hometown crowd and be with my team . . . it’s a dream come true. Not everybody gets to do it. I’m a longtime fan, and it’s an honor just to go out there and hang out with these guys.”
The feeling is probably mutual. Pfeifer is a retired 27-year veteran of the NYFD, a first responder scheduled for a day off on 9/11, and he got there as soon as he could. “I spent nine days at the pile and slept down there,” he said, and for the better part of a year, he was either digging or attending funerals. Then later, the attacks took on a more insidious nature: those exposed were getting sick by the thousands, and health care, provided by the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, was set to expire in 2015.
That’s when Pfeifer took on his mantle of so-called poster boy, part of the FeelGood Foundation team. Around 80,000 lobbyists, including talk-show host/comedian Jon Stewart, were able to pressure Congress to extend the act, essentially providing health care for the duration of first responders’ lives.
“I feel we’re being murdered by terrorists every day,” Pfeifer said, adding that the puck drop, done in partnership with Amgen’s Breakaway from Cancer initiative, takes on significance in light of the fight. “It’s a good thing for the 9/11 community,” he said. “I know we’re 15 years out, but to be home with a hometown crowd and be able to say what happened on 9/11 — not to dwell on it, but to just remind people there are still people out there that are sick.”
He had eight of his friends there and his son, Terence, 24, an FDNY EMT. (His daughter, Taylor, just passed her NYPD exam.) It was supposed to just be a boys’ night watching his beloved team . . . until, that is, he got the call last week that this particular game would be a little more interactive for him.
“They always surprise me,” he said of his friends. “I’m going to be overwhelmed with excitement.”
Pfeifer said he had a bad scare in December — he’s had 11 major surgeries now — but, other than the wheelchair, you wouldn’t know it.
“I’m a lucky man,” he said. “I had 15 more years than my friends.”
He keeps beating his doctor’s expectations, and he has no plans to stop anytime soon. “I’m coming out of” the health scare, he said. “I think because of the Islanders. I need to watch them win the Stanley Cup this year.”
He laughs. The Islanders have some big injuries and an uphill battle to climb. But hey, crazier things have happened.