With Beijing On The Horizon, U.S. Sled Hockey Players Are Gearing Up For Another Gold-Medal Run
by Bob Reinert
Brody Roybal competes during the semifinals match against Italy at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on March 15, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.
Many of the country’s top sled hockey players are headed to New Jersey this weekend to compete in the USA Hockey Sled Classic, presented by the NHL. For those on the national team, the 11th annual club tournament is yet another reminder that the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 are just around the corner.
Which means that the U.S. sled hockey team is about to embark on its quest for a fourth straight gold medal and fifth overall. The Americans also won a bronze medal in 2006.
The road to Paralympic gold should once again pass through Canada for the U.S. team. The Americans defeated the Canadians, 5-1, to win their fifth world championship in June. The teams split a two-game series last month in St. Louis.
“I think it really prepared us going into the Paralympics,” forward Brody Roybal, already a two-time Paralympian at age 23, said of the world championship win. “We got a good look at all the teams we’re going to be playing against. We have another tournament coming up here in December in Ostrava (Czech Republic) again.
“We’ll be playing some of the same countries, and we’re just focusing on our own game, though. We’re preparing like we would for any tournament, any game and, yeah, we’re just really excited to get after it.”
If they are to win in Beijing, the Americans will have to do so without standout goaltender Steve Cash. The three-time Paralympic gold medalist retired in October after 16 seasons.
“Stevie’s not just a great hockey player,” Jen Lee, his longtime backup goaltender, said at the time of his retirement. “He’s a great leader, but most importantly, he’s a great friend. He’s a brother to all of us.”
Cash is gone, but a close-knit core of teammates remains to skate hard toward the top of that podium in Beijing. Several veteran U.S. players are taking part in this week’s Sled Classic, which features 27 teams, many of them representing a local NHL franchise.
“In hockey, chemistry is so important,” said Jack Wallace, a 2018 Paralympic gold medalist who plays for the NJ Freeze club team. “You got 16 of your closest friends on the ice with you.
“When you’re dealing with adversity and dealing with really hard situations, it's amazing to be able to lean on teammates and use them as your support system, especially if you're not living close to your family or you're on the road or those situations. It’s great to have 16 really close friends in the room, and you can turn to any one of them.”
Rico Roman competes in a preliminary match against Japan at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on March 11, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.
Rico Roman agreed with Wallace’s assessment. At 40 years old and seeking his third Paralympic berth, he’s one of the more experienced players on the U.S. squad.
“We get on each other’s nerves, and we compete on the ice, but we leave it on the ice,” Roman said. “It's nothing but fun. I would not be doing this a decade if it was not fun, and it's because of my teammates how fun it is.
“And that locker room is so special, seeing that big American flag in there, putting on our jerseys together. It’s not a one-man sport. It’s a team sport, and (I) wouldn’t be able to do it without these guys. That's for sure.”
That closeness has been challenged during the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced athletes in all sports to train remotely at times.
“So, everyone’s had their own individual struggles with COVID,” forward Declan Farmer, another two-time gold medalist, said. “Some people have been more fortunate than others. For me, I moved to Nashville last summer. There’s a big group of the national team that lives here. I moved here just because there was good training, and then more guys followed.
“Our actual national team season was delayed from COVID. We had a lot of time off, kind of had an abbreviated season, finished up by winning gold in the world championships in Czech Republic this past June.”
The pandemic also will keep international fans out of Beijing for the Olympics and Paralympics. Roybal said their absence wouldn’t be an issue for the U.S. team.
“I don’t think fans not being there is really going to affect how we play our game at all,” Roybal said. “We’re going to prepare as if it was any other game, but my expectations are extremely high for Beijing. I think every Games that I’ve been to, they’ve done a great job with all the venues and all that stuff. So, my expectations are high, and I’m excited if I'm able to get out there.”
Wallace said that he wants to absorb the Paralympic experience in his second Games.
“The first time I went, it seemed like it all happened so fast,” Wallace said. “I didn’t really take a good look around, was pretty nervous about competing and playing at that level. Hopefully, this time I can calm down a little bit and soak it in.”
But this experienced, focused group won’t lose sight of why they are there.
“I mean that's the whole purpose of all this preparation and hard work we've been putting in,” Roman said. “I'm excited to see the competition, get out there with the boys, have fun, and hopefully bring back another gold medal.”
Bob Reinert spent 17 years writing sports for The Boston Globe. He also served as a sports information director at Saint Anselm College and Phillips Exeter Academy. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.