At first after he became an amputee, Tyler Carron was embarrassed about his prosthetics and wore long pants to hide them. Now he wears shorts and, when he competes in bodybuilding competitions, a tiny bathing suit. ”This is who I am,” he says proudly.
Playing sled hockey, he says, is intense. “People are hitting each other, it’s a real physical sport. That’s why I got into it. I was a football player and I wrestled so… I just like to hit!”
JERSEY NUMBER: 11
BORN: May 11, 1989
HOMETOWN: Fort Collins, Colorado
HOME TEAM: Colorado Avalanche
Tyler’s journey to sled hockey is one of the team’s most surprising. He and fellow USA Sled Hockey athlete Nikko Landeros were best friends in high school. Tyler was a senior, Nikko a junior, and both were stars were on their school wrestling team. On a drive home from a school dance one evening, the 17-year-olds stopped to fix a flat tire. The two were hit by a passing vehicle as they pulled supplies out of the trunk of the car.
The collision left both boys with severe injuries. The freezing cold night helped slow down the blood loss and kept them alive, but they both needed bilateral leg amputations. They were roommates at the hospital and in rehab, encouraging each other to get on with their lives.
Determined not to let his injury keep him from competition, Tyler joined Nikko in his new sport of choice: sled hockey. Tyler began playing with the Colorado Avalanche sled hockey team in 2008, earning his place alongside Nikko in the U.S. National Sled Hockey team in 2010.
“When Nikko made the team, I knew: I’ll eventually be on that team, too,” remembers Tyler. At every step of his journey, he says, “It was important for Nikko to be there because we kind of fed off each other and we’d always be competitive!”
Today, in his time away from the rink, Tyler has trained for and taken part in the Warrior Classic bodybuilding competition in 2010, standing proudly on his prosthetic legs, and competing to the tune of "Super Beast." He didn’t win – points were deducted because he didn’t have leg muscles to judge! – but he took the "Heart of a Warrior" award for his determination and inspiration.
Sochi is still the big goal. “Being with the guys and we’re representing Team USA, it’s awesome.”
Team USA’s Steve Cash was backup goalie in Torino in 2006, then starter in Vancouver in 2010. He came out of the Vancouver Games with a perfect record – no scores on goal in 5 games – and a gold medal!
When asked what it takes to be such a great goalie, Steve says, “A lot of it is positioning and just being able to read the play, because your arms are also your legs. Not only are you skating and moving across the ice with your arms, you’re also stopping the puck with them.”
Cash has said that the worst part of being a sled hockey goalie is being lower to the ice: it can get a little scary, he admits, when a puck is flying at his head at 60 miles an hour. But the good part is being the backbone of the team.
As teammate Nikko Landeros says, “Without a goalie, you don’t have much.”
Being in goal means wearing and using different equipment, Steve points out. “I have a glove that actually has a track spike on the back hand, like the bottom of a track shoe, that allows me to dig in the ice. And I have a standard blocker and a kind of mini-goalie stick.”
As one of the team’s experienced athletes, he says, “I’ve been in this situation before where I'm training hard, I'm getting ready.”
Steve’s journey to the Paralympics began at the age of three, when he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, cancer of the bone, in his right knee. His knee was amputated, but doctors moved his ankle joint into the knee position, and young Steve joined his older brothers in playing roller hockey and standup hockey. And then he discovered sled hockey.
Following an older brother’s example, Steve had been playing goalie on his high school’s stand-up hockey team, skating on a prosthesis. It made sense to him to try goalie in sled hockey, and only six months later, he won a spot on the US team.
“It feels like just yesterday that I was on the ice vying for my spot at tryouts,” he remembers. But he is ready for Sochi, and thinks his teammates are, too: “I know what it takes to form a mindset and get ready for the Games, and I'm confident that everyone else is ready, too. “
Defenseman Taylor Chace has spent his whole life playing ice hockey, both the stand-up game and sled hockey. The journey has brought him medals at competitions around the world.
He’s also a passionate advocate for adaptive sports, especially sled hockey: “Michael Jordan said he wanted to play his best every game because he never knew when someone was watching basketball for the first time in their life… Well, almost everybody who comes to this game has never seen sled hockey, so I want to perform for those people and allow them to become fans, and spread the word of sled hockey.”
Taylor grew up skating on his family’s backyard pond in New Hampshire. “Hockey was my life,” he remembers. “I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to pursue it at the highest level I could.”
He played junior hockey from age 5 to 16, until he took a very hard hit during a game that spun him around and crashed him into the boards. The impact caused an incomplete spinal cord injury and partial paralysis of Taylor’s legs.
As he worked on learning to walk again, he thought his days of competitive sports were over. Then his sister, a student at University of New Hampshire, told him about an adaptive sports program at the university, called Northeast Passage.
He couldn’t play sled hockey well at first, Taylor says, but he was hooked as soon as he took a hit and scored a goal. Four years after the accident, he joined the U.S. National Sled Hockey team, helping the team win bronze at the Winter Paralympic Games in Torino in 2006 and gold in Vancouver in 2010, and scoring the winning goal in the 1-0 victory over Canada in the 2012 World Championships.
Today, Taylor Chace coaches younger players at Northeast Passage, the program that introduced him to sled hockey. Practice, strength training, and maintaining a high heart rate are key, he advises his students. His goal is to show kids with disabilities that they can play – and win.
Competition at team try-outs is always strong in a Paralympic year. In 2013, looking towards the Sochi Games, an unprecedented number of hopefuls – more than 60, including rookies and veterans – came out for just 18 spots. Declan Farmer impressed the coaches with strong play all over the ice, culminating in a goal during the wrap-up game.
Declan was one of two high schoolers selected, making this his second year on the national team. He was only 15 at the start of last season, but placed on or near the top in the scoring and assists.
Now, with his selection to the 2013-2014 team, Declan is headed to Sochi, aiming for a gold-medal win. He did lose one competition: rookie teammate Brody Roybal is 6 months younger, so Brody now is the youngest member of the team.
Declan, who was born a bilateral amputee, began sled hockey in 2006. “When I was in my first year of playing in tournaments,” Declan says, “I saw them win gold in Vancouver. And that really made me want to get good at it and get on the national team.”
In 2013, Farmer ended his rookie international season with four goals and four assists at the World Championship, where Team USA took silver, losing to arch-rivals Canada. Declan makes it clear what that meant: “Finishing with silver gives me more inspiration to get a lot better… and win gold in Sochi.”
Team USA’s assistant coach, Guy Gosselin, describes what Declan brings to the ice. “He just loves the game, you can see it in his face and his demeanor. When he makes a good play he gets that self-satisfaction. He’s not throwing his arms up in the air whooping and hollering. It’s just ‘I did it.’ That’s very cool. You don’t get that a lot today.”
For all his seriousness about the game, Declan is still a teenager: he says his favorite superhero is Bane, and calls “Anchorman” one of his favorite movies. He listens to rock and rap, plays X-box, and eats “anything Italian.”
Nikko Landeros was a ferocious competitor, even as a young teen. He played basketball and was a nose guard in high school football. Then his best friend Tyler Carron, a top wrestler in their state of Colorado, suggested he try wrestling. Nikko loved it.
“What happened” was a snowy, cold night in 2007 when Nikko and Tyler were driving their dates home from a dance. They got a flat tire and were pulled off to the side when another vehicle came along, didn’t see them, and pinned them between the two cars.
They both would lose their legs. But they still had their friendship.
JERSEY NUMBER: 15
BORN: April 28, 1989
HEIGHT: 6' 1"
HOMETOWN: Johnstown, Colorado
HOME TEAM: Colorado Avalanche
Landeros remained conscious throughout the ordeal, developed pneumonia in the hospital, and underwent nine operations. At one point, doctors opened up his left arm, raising fears he might become a triple amputee.
Recovery was slow at first. But he and Tyler both wanted to be independent, so they learned to walk on prosthetics. And they wanted to compete again. In 2009, two years after the accident, Nikko made it to the US National Team and was on his way to the Vancouver Paralympics.
Surprisingly, Nikko wasn’t sure at first that sled hockey would be a fit for him. At his first tryout, he says, laughing, “It wasn’t our favorite thing.” He still had problems with his hands after being in a cast for so long. “That first time wasn’t the funnest!”
Six months later, the two friends strapped into sleds again. “We got out there and something clicked,” he recalls. “We starting training and working our butts off to get to where we are now!”
Today Nikko and Tyler are both defensemen for Team USA. Nikko also works to support Adaptive Adventures, a non-profit organization that offers sports and recreational opportunities for people with physical disabilities.
Jen Yung Lee knows his role, in the military and on the ice: “My job in the Army is to train full-time for the Paralympic team. I’m training and competing for my country.”
Lee left his hometown of San Francisco after high school to enlist in the U.S. Army, becoming a staff sergeant and a Blackhawk helicopter mechanic. But an off-duty motorcycle accident at age 23 left Jen with an amputation above the knee of his right leg.
Jen became involved in sled hockey as part of Operation Comfort, a nonprofit organization that provides rehabilitative programs for wounded vets. He had no ice hockey background, although he did play goalie for an inline roller hockey team as a kid. “The concept is the same – stop the puck,” he says. But he had to learn the game from scratch.
JERSEY NUMBER: 1
BORN: July 26, 1986
HEIGHT: 6' 2"
HOMETOWN: San Francisco, California
HOME TEAM: San Antonio Rampage
In 2010, just one year after he first pushed his sled onto the ice, Jen Lee made the national team.
And while he was recovering and learning sled hockey, Jen had another pressing concern: Was he going to be allowed to continue his military service?
Lee proved himself: he is the only active-duty service member on the current national team. He is part of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, which supports soldier-athletes who are training for the Olympic and Paralympic Games while maintaining a professional military career. His active duty status is set until January 2015, when he will decide whether to re-enlist or begin the transition into civilian life.
For now, the experience on the USA Sled Hockey team feels very familiar to Jen: “It’s almost the same thing as in combat… We have to rely on each other in order to go on and survive.” He calls being part of the team “a big gift for me, and I'm very thankful for that.”
Jen Lee serves as backup goaltender to Steve Cash. Even when he doesn’t get ice time, Jen is a critical part of the team, suiting up, ready to skate in at a moment’s notice at all national and international competitions, and cheering on his teammates.
He also plays on the San Antonio Rampage sled hockey team alongside Team USA sled hockey teammates Rico Roman and Josh Sweeney, who were wounded in Afghanistan, and other veterans with disabilities.
Taylor Lipsett found sled hockey at the grocery store. In 2002, he and his mother were shopping and started talking with a woman whose son-in-law had just won a gold medal in sled hockey at the Salt Lake City Winter Games.
The next weekend, Taylor was on the ice for the first time.
It wasn’t an obvious sport for the teenager, who at age five was diagnosed with osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease.
Because of the disease, when Taylor took up sled hockey, he knew he couldn’t be a defenseman, which could require slamming his body into opponents. Instead, he worked hard to develop his stick-handling skills, one of the toughest parts of the sport.
Within 18 months he was making a name as an offensive threat, with some of the “best hands” in the country.
Lipsett was recruited for the men’s national sled hockey team only two years after first strapping in.
Surprisingly, playing this rough game, he breaks fewer, not more, bones. “Unless I get just t-boned right along the boards,” he says, “there’s not really any issue” with his brittle bones.
Going in to Sochi, Lipsett has valuable experience for this highest level of international competition. He played on the Paralympic team in Torino, Italy, in 2006, when the US took bronze, and again in 2010 in Vancouver, when the team took gold. Taylor was a major offensive player in that win, notching five goals in five games. In the gold-medal win at the 2012 World Championships, Taylor also contributed strongly: a hat trick and an assist. Today, he is one of the sled hockey veterans that younger players look up to.
“I love this quote from Scott Hamilton,” he says. “‘The only disability in life is having a bad attitude!’"
Even as a child, Taylor never let his disease get in the way of having fun. He played street hockey in his wheelchair or on a skateboard with his brother and friends, and he reckons he broke over 100 bones.
Today, when he’s not playing hockey, Taylor enjoys golfing, cruising around in his sports cars, and spending time with his wife, Kathleen. He has a degree in finance from Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business, and works for U.S. Trust, a private wealth management company.
Like many of the U.S. sled hockey team athletes, Dan McCoy was born in a family of hockey players. He was also born with spina bifida, a birth defect caused by incomplete formation of vertebrae, and hydrocephalus, an extra accumulation of fluid in the brain.
Dan’s mother says he set his sights on making the U.S. National Paralympic Sled Hockey team at age seven.
At age 14, Dan was trying out for the Junior National Paralympics Team, a tough goal that he attacked with twice-weekly training sessions to improve his core and upper body strength.
His birth defects left him with no control of his lower legs, meaning that his quads and inner thighs were what he relied on. By the time he went to tryouts, his trainer said, he was “like lightning on the ice” and had “a slapshot clocked at over 60 miles an hour.“
He’d also learned to deal with the roughness of the sport. “Kidney shots,” he says, thoughtfully. “I’ve gotten the front nose of the sled right to the kidney before. It’s not fun, but... you learn to bounce back from it and just keep going with the pace of the game.”
Dan won a spot on the National Developmental Sled Hockey Team in 2009, and moved up to join the U.S. National Sled Hockey team in 2011, where he was the youngest member of the team – excited to be playing with Paralympic gold medalists – and Rookie of the Year.
He likes the way sled hockey changes people’s perspectives on disability. “They can see, ‘Hey, these people with disabilities, they’re at the exact same playing-field-level as anyone without a disability!‘ It’s just a regular hockey game to them. They’re just living their lives as they know how.“
McCoy helped Team USA to a first-place finish at the December 2012 World Sledge Hockey Challenge in Calgary, Canada, where he skated in all five games, scoring twice against Norway in the semifinals. He also was part of the team that took a silver medal at the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Ice Sledge World Championship in Goyang City, South Korea.
Today, Dan attends the University of Pittsburgh where he is studying rehabilitation sciences, sports medicine, and business.
When Kevin McKee joined the US National Sled Hockey Team in 2011, he showed his offensive strengths right from the start: Kevin led all rookies with 6 goals and tied for first with 8 points.
The sport wasn’t always easy for him, but he was hooked immediately.
Sled hockey – especially the physicality of the game – felt “fun” to Kevin, who was born with sacral agenesis, a spinal deformity, and always wanted to play sports.
Kevin also played other sports: tennis in high school, wheelchair basketball at Wilbur Wright College. After playing with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago Blackhawks and the St. Louis Blues sled hockey teams, he joined the U.S. Development Sled Hockey team in 2010 and made the National team only a year later.
In their most recent head-to-head with arch-rivals Canada, McKee played an important part in Team USA’s 3-1 win in the finale. As one report put it, McKee “capped the U.S. victory” when he scored with just 15 seconds remaining.
Kevin says, “I'm a smaller guy… I try to work on angles, taking out their sled and stuff like that. Because, obviously, I'm not going to be able to knock a big guy over, but if I can take his sled away, then that’s good.”
That kind of scrappiness was something Kevin remembers from his youngest days. “I remember playing with my friends and I'd always like to go on the skateboard,” he admits. “I wasn’t one of them to say, ‘I can’t, I can’t do it.’ “
Today, Kevin works hard to say in shape for the game. “I do a cardio to start, like a hand cycle. I usually do that in the morning. Then I'll head to the gym and do, like, agility once a week. I do a strength and a power once a week.” He also does something called, “the skier,” which he describes as “the same motion as skating so it’s really a workout machine. Most of the guys have it at home. It’s really nice to have that if you can’t get ice time.”
“All the guys are really working their tails off to get ready for the Games,” he says, to make sure they come together perfectly in Sochi.
Adam Page knows what it’s like to be youngest member of national sled hockey team: He was first selected at age 15, in 2007.
It wasn’t until current teammates Brody Roybal and Declan Farmer joined that there were even younger players.
The Pages are a sports family – his father works for USA Hockey – so it must have seemed natural for Adam, who was born with spina bifida, to head towards sled hockey. But he tried other sports first: baseball, karate, then finally hockey.
“I started playing for a local team in Buffalo,” he remembers, “When I was eleven or twelve, I got more serious about it, and found out that there was another level that you could go to.”
Today, his focus is, of course, on Paralympic sled hockey, but Adam continues to play hockey with his friends when he’s back home, and he also loves hitting the slopes in adaptive downhill skiing.
There are a lot of things Adam loves about the game and how it surprises first-time audiences. “They can’t believe how fast you move your arms, how fast we can shoot the puck… and how hard we can shoot just with one hand.” He also points to the loudness of the sport, which he describes as “crunching up against the boards, the metal hitting the sleds - you know, it’s a lot more intense sounds than regular hockey.”
Adam still gets some butterflies before games and says he makes it a point to listen to rock music to get him focused and ready. He’s a veteran now, a role model for younger players, and well aware of what they need to do to win.
“We have a lot of team speed and we all work hard, we grind it out and work hard in the corners. And, you know, we have a lot of heart on the team.”
Forward Josh Pauls loves hockey. He plays it. He roots for his home team, the New Jersey Devils. He even plays hockey on his Xbox. “I'm really a hockey addict,” he admits.
Josh was a New Year’s Eve baby, born without shin bones in both legs. At 10 months old, both of his legs were amputated. “I was so young, it really didn’t matter,” he says. “When I learned to walk, I learned on prosthetics.”
At 17, he was the youngest member of the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team that won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. He also helped the U.S. win gold at the 2012 World Championships, playing in all five games.
His teammates call him “Spudsy” because a trainer thought he resembled Mr. Potato Head. “As a gag gift one year, I was given the toy and now it’s part of my pre-game superstition,” says Josh. “I’ve lost his arms, though, and you can’t really play sled hockey without arms... So I always face him towards the opponent’s locker room when we play, just a little intimidation thing.”
The team, with all its different personalities and stories, is so important, he says.
How would Josh describe himself? He admits he is a comedian who likes to take the tension levels down by joking about his disability with people who are uncomfortable. He also can be a prankster, like using his prosthetic leg as a cupholder just to freak someone out.
He’s a major country music fan. “It is pretty rare that I don't listen to some country during some point in my day. Whether it is to brighten up a dreary day or to add some background noise when I'm doing homework, it is my favorite kind of music.”
And he loves to cook. When he’s home, he makes meals for his family, and he likes to borrow a kitchen from teammates, if he’s in their hometowns.
Rico Roman considers himself “blessed.” He’s playing a sport he describes as “amazing.”
“Take a timer out there,” he argues, “and put your fastest rugby player, your fastest Paralympic basketball player, and the fastest sled hockey player, and see how fast one can get to the other end. And I guarantee it, the sled hockey would be the fastest by far.”
Rico grew up in Portland, Oregon, with no interest in hockey. He wrestled and played football and basketball. After graduating from high school, he joined the U.S. Army.
On his third Middle East tour in 2007, Staff Sgt. Roman was riding in a Humvee when it struck an improvised explosive device. The explosion ripped through the vehicle, damaging both of his legs, one of them so severely it had to be amputated.
During his recovery, he connected with Operation Comfort, a San Antonio-based group that works to get disabled U.S. military personnel and veterans into adaptive sports. He was interested in wheelchair basketball and hand-cycling - but then they tried to interest him in sled hockey.
“How many Hispanics do you see playing hockey,” he told them. “No, thank you, I don’t play hockey.”
Finally, he agreed to try.
He was hooked. It felt, he said, like football on ice, although he also admits how much he had to learn: “Even when I made the national team, I was still learning the fundamentals of the game.”
He’s played defense and offense for Team USA, and is is one of four current military members or veterans on the national team, along with Jen Lee, Josh Sweeney and Paul Schaus – “our all-veterans line,” Rico says proudly.
Rico still plays wheelchair basketball, but sled hockey is is now the sport he loves. He’s become a hockey fanatic, not only as a player but also as an avid fan of the Dallas Stars. He plays for the San Antonio Rampage, on a team made up of veterans, while also playing on the U.S. National Sled Hockey team.
And he is trying to convert his young daughter and son, who play soccer, basketball and football, into hockey players. “I just got them skating,” he says. “I really want them to skate.”
Rookie forward Brody Roybal is the youngest player on the 2014 US National Team – he just turned 15 in May of 2013!
Born a congenital bilateral amputee, Brody loves the speed and physicality of sled hockey – and the way it surprises people coming to their first games. “They’re usually amazed at how fast-tempo it is. They’re thinking that we’re all disabled and it’s going to be really slow. But when they see that we’re out there and we put bodies on, we’re passing the puck around, and we’re fast out there, they’re usually in awe.”
To Brody, having no legs is normal. He grew up crawling, walking, playing T-ball. He tried wheelchair basketball and softball, but they weren’t for him. And then sled hockey, which he thinks he started playing at age 7, or was it age 6? It clicked.
Still, it’s not easy now that he’s grown to be a high school sophomore who’s training and playing nationally and internationally.
You have to be disciplined, especially when traveling, Roybal says: “You have to put a little bit of homework aside for every day so you’re not just overwhelmed and only thinking about school.”
At home, it’s a race to fit in everything, too. “Before school every morning I skate from 6 am ‘til 7, and then I rush over to school. I go through my classes, and then instead of eating lunch at school, I go work out in the gym with my trainer. And then I do all the rest of my classes, and go home and do school work, and then, maybe, skate again at night.”
But the balancing act is worth it, Brody says, to be part of the team. He’s learning from seasoned players more than twice his age, like team captain Andy Yohe, and from military veterans who’ve lived very different lives, like "wounded warriors” Rico Roman and Josh Sweeney.
And he’s contributing, too. His favorite part, he says, is being a playmaker on the ice: “hitting out there, pushing guys around, talking out there. It’s fun!”
“I grew up playing hockey,” says Paul Schaus, a big fan of his hometown team, the Buffalo Sabres.
After his wartime injury, he was upset he wouldn't be able to play again. Then he found sled hockey. “Once I got on the ice, smelled the ice again, heard the puck hit the boards again, felt the puck on my stick, I was back to playing hockey again,” he says. “It's part of me.”
Schaus, who served in the Marine Corps, was injured in an IED explosion in 2009 in Afghanistan. Both legs were amputated above the knee, and he was awarded a Purple Heart.
“I got into sled hockey,” says Schaus, “and it was pretty much my gateway to have fun again. I got out there and started experiencing stuff again.”
JERSEY NUMBER: 28
BORN: November 8, 1988
HEIGHT: 5' 7"
HOMETOWN: Buffalo, New York
HOME TEAM: Buffalo Sabres
For Schaus, the biggest difference between stand-up hockey and sled hockey is getting used to coordinating sledding and stick-handling – all with the arms. In stand-up hockey, he marvels, “You’re moving with your legs and then you’re kind of straight-on stick-handling with your arms. But this! You have to multi-task, your muscles have to really multi-task – and your brain, too!”
Today Paul is one of four military and ex-military on the National Sled Hockey team heading for Sochi. One of them calls it “the all-veterans line” with forwards Schaus, Rico Roman, and Josh Sweeney, plus goalie Jen Lee.
Coach Jeff Sauer calls Schaus “one of our leaders,” on the ice and off. And Sauer also says that Schaus would win a trophy for most improved player, if they had one. “He's the epitome of work ethic and commitment.”
Even as he heads to Sochi, Paul isn’t forgetting his Buffalo roots. He’s been a member of the Buffalo Sabres Sled Hockey Team since 2011, helping them win a national championship in 2012.
Greg Shaw was born with sacral agenesis, a congenital spine deformation that he compares to spina bifida. Greg says he was not held back at all by the disability: his parents gave him a skateboard even before he could walk, and he started surfing when he was 7 or 8.
Shaw was part of the gold-medal winning team at Vancouver in 2010, and he’s excited to be returning for a shot at repeat gold. But he knows the rival teams all have their sights on Team USA – the Koreans, the Russians, and especially the Canadians.
“There’s no way you would want to take any team for granted,” he points out, “They’re all so good. And they can upset you in a heartbeat.”
Greg’s route to sled hockey was a bit unexpected. “Growing up in Florida, there wasn’t much ice hockey,” says Greg. But on a visit to Utah, he tried adaptive skiing and ski racing, and found he had a gift for it. Then a friend convinced him to try sled hockey.
Two parts of the sport are really appealing, says Greg. First is the physicality: In hockey, “if you want to lay down a check, you can.” He admits, “It’s almost addicting.”
And second, he loves the team camaraderie. “There’s nothing else like it, having seventeen, eighteen guys back you up, day in, day out. We’re like a brotherhood, that’s what draws me to the sport.”
Like many of his teammates, Greg is at ease as an ambassador for adaptive sports and people with disabilities. “We’re definitely more comfortable than the people around us. We want you to walk up and ask us questions, and not just… 'I wonder what’s wrong with him?'… We’d rather you be educated about what’s going on with us, rather than just wondering.”
His goals? “What I work for every day, day in, day out, all of the training sessions I take, all of the gym sessions, everything I work for,” he says, ”it’s really to represent my country and family."
Josh Sweeney played hockey in high school because, he says, it was too hot in Phoenix to play football. He wasn’t a finesse player: “I was more of a bruiser. I would go in and grab the puck and give it to someone who knew what to do with it.”
After high school, Josh joined the Marines and was deployed to Afghanistan. Then, in October 2009, he stepped on an improvised explosive device.
The roads were so heavily mined, it took hours for medical transport to reach Josh and the other injured Marines. “I just lay there,” he says, “and thought, not so much ‘Am I going to get out alive, be ok?’ but more, ‘Are my buddies going to be all right?’ “
Josh ended up losing both legs and had injuries to his left hand and arm.
Sled hockey became part of his rehabilitation. “I already understood the game and knew where I needed to be. I just had to get my skill level up to the point where I could actually do what I already knew how to do,” he says.
Two years after his injury, Josh made the National Sled Hockey Team. He is now an alternate captain and helped win the series against Canada in January 2014. In this last meet-up of the rival teams before the Sochi Paralympics, Josh added a goal and three assists.
Today, pull-ups, some heavy lifting, body movement exercises, anything to make him more fluid on the ice – these are all part of Sweeney’s training. The focus for sled hockey athletes is always the arms.
“The same type of abuse that somebody that’s on a professional team would put on their hips and their legs, we’re doing to our arms and our shoulders,” he points out. “My first couple of tournaments, my joints and my elbows would just ache for hours.”
Josh has plans for college after the Games, maybe in engineering. And he hasn’t forgotten his fellow “wounded warriors." He volunteers at San Antonio’s Center for the Intrepid, encouraging injured veterans to try wheelchair basketball or sled hockey or whatever will “get a little spark into their souls again.”
Andy Yohe has two Paralympic medals: bronze from Torino, Italy, in 2006 and gold from Vancouver in 2010. Now he’s the captain of the team, trying to lead them to repeat gold in Sochi.
Growing up, Andy was an avid hockey athlete and fan. Then, at age sixteen, playing around with a group of friends, he tried to jump onto a fast-moving train. “It sucked me right under,” he recalls, and his legs were crushed. Both were amputated, one below, the other above the knee.
At first, Andy resisted playing adaptive sports, thinking it would be “lower level” and not as competitive as the sports he’d played before the accident. Then he tried wheelchair basketball and was hooked. After six years of high-level basketball, he switched to sled hockey, playing with the RIC Blackhawks and joining the U.S. National Sled Hockey team in 2005.
“You really have to watch sled hockey to understand, it definitely takes a lot of practice,” he says. “The first time anybody’s in a sled, even NHL players, you’d think they had never played hockey before in their lives.”
Andy describes sled hockey as very similar to stand-up hockey. “There’s a lot of gamesmanship that goes on within hockey games. It’s sometimes about really trying to get into people’s heads and, you know, mess with them to try to get them a little bit off their game.” Like any top athlete, he admits, ”Any advantage you can get in a game, you want to take it!”
Andy played elite-level sled hockey for five years. But after the 2010 Paralympic Games, he decided to take a break from hockey. He and his wife were expecting a daughter – they now have a son, too – and he wanted more time at home, where he works at a prosthetics and orthotic facility.
Then, in 2013, the lure of the ice got him again. He emerged from retirement, re-joined the team, and now, as captain and the team’s oldest player, he’s looking to provide leadership that will put Team USA back on the top podium.
Andy knows what it means to win gold, and says every one on the team is focused on Sochi. “You are representing your country and you are one of the best athletes at your sport in your country, so, get out there and, and play for US Paralympics and USA hockey and all the people that put on so much effort behind the scenes.”
Jeff Sauer has been involved in hockey for his entire career. He spent 31 years as a NCAA Division I college coach, putting together the seventh-highest number of career wins – an astonishing 655! – and two national championships.
He retired in 2002, not because he was done with hockey, but to look for other hockey opportunities. It didn’t take long: he next coached the U.S. team in the Deaflympics, continuing his work with hearing-impaired hockey and coaching the team that took gold in 2007.
And then he became head coach of the Paralympic Sled Hockey team. It felt familiar and different at the same time. “The Paralympic sled hockey team is no different than any other team I’ve ever coached,” he says, pointing out that player management and game strategy are always the same.
Sauer calls his players “inspirational” and says sled hockey skills are just like those of able-bodied hockey, with a few changes: You can’t skate backwards in a sled. The double amputees can turn quicker. The players with legs make a bigger defensive target.
ATHLETIC TRAINER: Mike Cortese
GENERAL MANAGER: Dan Brennan
TEAM PHYSICIAN: Mike Uihlein
ASSISTANT COACH: Guy Gosselin
EQUIPMENT MANAGER: Joel Isaacson
HEAD COACH: Jeff Sauer
“The most incredible thing for me is stickhandling and shooting with both hands. They can stickhandle underneath the sled!” he says. “If I've told them once, I've told them twenty times, you guys can do stuff that Wayne Gretzky couldn't do – you can shoot with both hands.”
In 2011, Sauer was honored with the NHL’s Lester Patrick Award for “outstanding service to hockey in the United States.”
Sled hockey is stand-up hockey on sleds. The big difference is that sled hockey players have sticks in both hands.
Six players, including the goalie, are on the ice at a time, playing on a regulation Olympic-sized rink for three 15-minute periods of play. Hard checks are as common as in stand-up hockey, and players who commit fouls are sent to the penalty box, creating a power play opportunity for the opposing team.
Sled hockey is an intense and highly competitive sport. Learn about the game, the equipment, and the skills needed to win. (01:53)
Two sleds can collide at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour. Hear what the intensity of the sport means to the players. (02:24)
Anyone who can’t play stand-up hockey can play sled hockey – athletes with amputations, spinal cord injuries, brittle bone disease, and more. Since 2010, teams can also be mixed-gender, although currently Team USA has no women on the roster.
Both are right. Americans say “sled,” Canadians and Europeans favor “sledge.”
What sled hockey players call NHL-style hockey for the able-bodied.
The pointed teeth or spikes on the end of a shooting stick, must be no longer than 1 cm to prevent damage to the ice and injury to other players.
Ramming the front of a sled broadside into another player, a foul.
Custom-fitted with two skate blades underneath, sleds vary in length from 24 to 48 inches, depending on the athlete’s leg length. Blades are designed to let the puck pass underneath.
Sticks have a curved blade on one end for shooting and 6-8 metal teeth on the other end. The picks are used for maneuvering and propulsion. Sometimes, in the heat of the game, they’re also used against opposing players – a foul, if the referees see it.
Unlike the rest of the players, the goaltender carries only one stick. Additional picks on the curved blade help the goalie maneuver around the goal. Medal picks are also sewn into the goalie's glove for this purpose.
Four years to Sochi. A year. Six months. Three. The players on Team USA have been living this countdown since the last Winter Paralympics, in Vancouver in 2010.
That year, the US brought home the gold. For the eight members of today’s team who played in those Games, and for the new guys, the goal is to win an unprecedented second gold in a row.
Sled hockey joined the Paralympics only 20 years ago, in 1994, and it took eight years for Team USA to win its first medal. It was a dramatic win: gold on the home ice at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
Since then, the US has always had a spot on the podium: bronze in 2006, gold in 2010.
But the competition since Vancouver has been fierce. As forward Josh Pauls says, “It’s super-competitive!”
Top teams to watch include the Russians, a hard-hitting team that always shows up to play. They will have home ice advantage in Sochi.
The Koreans are fast and accurate, and have given Team USA some very tough games. Forward Greg Shaw calls Korea strong, quick, and really competitive. “Everything that anyone says about them is that they have a chance to go on and win.”
And then there are the Canadians.
The rivalry between the US and Canada is long-standing and fierce, in sled hockey just as it is in stand-up hockey. The matchup is hard to call.
The US won the 2012 World Championships. Canada won the 2013 Worlds.
Canada beat the US in December 2013. The US paid them back a month later. Coach Jeff Sauer called that January 2014 win “a great way for us to finish international competition before we head to the Paralympics.”
2009 Hockey Canada Cup – CANADA
2009 World Championship – USA
2009 World Sledge Hockey Challenge – USA
2010 Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver – USA
Nov 2011 World Sledge Hockey Challenge – CANADA
Apr 2011 World Sledge Hockey Challenge – CANADA
2012 World Championship – USA
2012 World Sledge Hockey Challenge - USA
2013 World Championship – CANADA
2013 World Sledge Hockey Challenge - CANADA
2014 Sled Series - Charlotte, NC - USA
Even the experts are struggling to predict the Sochi Games. Team Canada “should be favored to claim the ice sledge hockey title ahead of the USA and Russia,” wrote one blogger – but then he backtracked, saying, “The St. Louis ‘Blues Brothers’ are one of the most stealthy duos on the ice – [Steve] Cash is arguably the greatest sledge hockey goaltender in the world and [Josh] Pauls is one of the top scorers."
“We have to make them play OUR game.” That’s what Team USA’s head coach, Jeff Sauer, says. Sauer, who led the University of Wisconsin’s hockey staff for nine years, loves the work ethic and commitment he sees on his team. “There’s no ‘woe is me’ attitude with these players,” he says proudly.
The coaching job is the same as standup hockey, Sauer maintains, although he does highlight some fine points: “The double amps are much more maneuverable. They can turn quicker. But the guys that have legs on the sleds offer a bigger target, so they can use their sled as a defensive situation in terms of getting in the way.”
And the Paralympians can stickhandle from both sides and even underneath the sled. Coach Sauer says, “If I've told them once, I've told them 20 times, you guys can do stuff that Wayne Gretzky couldn't do: You can shoot with both hands.”
But he only gets his players together as the Games approach.
Like all amateur players, they have lives, families, jobs, school. They’re not a professional team, living and playing together year-round, and that makes it hard to get everyone at peak together.
Training has to be customized around work and school schedules. Both physical and mental preparations, on the ice and off it, focus down to the weeks leading to the Games, and the athletes have to think carefully about distractions like parties or vacations – everything affects performance at this point.
According to Coach Sauer it all comes down to this: Team USA will be working to keep up their “intensity” – so they can repeat the Vancouver magic and take home back-to-back gold medals.
Don't miss any of the action: Check back starting March 8 for our daily coverage from Sochi as the team attempts a second consecutive gold medal.
On NEED TO KNOW, veteran Scott Winkler recounts how Paralympic sports gave him hope and a desire to live.
On TAVIS SMILEY, Paralympic medalist and best-selling author Bonnie St. John remembers the 1984 Paralympics.