The first day back to the office after a break tends to bring with a jolt and stark reminder of what needs to be done.
That’s exactly what happened to the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team when it fell to Canada, 4-3, in its first game of the 2019 Sled Series in Indian Trail, North Carolina. The loss, its first of the 2018-19 campaign, was Team USA’s first game action since capturing the 2019 Para Hockey Cup last December.
The U.S. didn’t play a perfect game, and often times made the game difficult with their own decision-making, and still nearly found a way to win.
After trailing 1-0 early, two quick goals late in the opening frame saw the U.S. up, 2-1. An uncharacteristic second period and early start to the third period saw the U.S. fall behind, 4-2, before a late surge brought Team USA back within one before time expired.
The message from U.S. head coach David Hoff (Bottineau, N.D.) and his staff postgame was simple and clear. Shake off the time apart and have fun in game two.
The result? A dominating 4-1 victory. The U.S. took the staff’s lead and simplified its game, making smart plays with the puck and playing its successful aggressive, swarming style of defense to stifle Canada’s chances.
The lessons learned in the 2019 Sled Series will be put to good use as the U.S. prepares for the 2019 Para Ice Hockey World Championship set to take place from April 27-May 4 in Ostrava, Czech Republic. The team will hold a training camp April 11-14 in Indian Trail, giving the Americans a chance to work out any flaws from the Sled Series.
For Coach Hoff, the planning for Team USA’s final camp of the season started the minute he left North Carolina.
“I made a list as I was sitting on the plane flying home, things that we need to be sharper at,” said Hoff.
Among the items Hoff will be working on solutions for are defensive awareness, special teams and shift length. What he won’t have to change, though, is team chemistry. It’s a big part of why the U.S. has won six of its seven games this season and remains a formidable foe each time the team takes the ice.
“I like starting with how cohesive of a unit it is,” said Hoff, who also noted the team’s high level of talent. “We have 17 guys who enjoy being together, so that’s a great start. So I think the chemistry part is good. We have a good variety of everything, but we do have guys who are willing to check their ego at the door so it’s not about them. It’s a fun group to work with.”
In reflecting on the 2019 Sled Series, U.S. veteran goaltender Steve Cash (Overland, Mo.) deferred to the message Coach Hoff stressed in that the team needs to make themselves tough to play against and maximize their talent.
“I think that was the difference between game one and game two,” Cash explained. “Everyone came in ready to go, but there are going to be some hiccups as far as chemistry goes when you haven’t been on the ice with all 17 guys since December. We just had to focus in and remember the simpler aspects of our game.”
Cash split goaltending duties with fellow veteran U.S. netminder Jen Lee (San Francisco, Calif.), who made his first-ever start against Canada in Friday’s 4-3 loss.
“I’m really happy for Jen not only to get that start, but to see the team fight its way back into the game and try to get a win for him,” Cash said.
As for the overall weekend play, Cash noticed a few areas for improvement.
“A few defensive zone things we need to clean up,” Cash said. “Communication, that starts with the goalie. Me and Jen have really been trying to work with our defensemen different cues that we can tell them, keeping it simple and let them be able to see the ice without having them having to look up the ice.”
The 2019 Para Ice Hockey World Championship will be Hoff’s first world championship as a head coach. An assistant coach on last year’s gold medal-winning team at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games and Team USA’s silver medal-winning effort at the 2017 world championship, Hoff said the adjustment from assistant to head coach has been smooth.
“I was worried that it was going to be more of an adjustment and how guys would receive me,” Hoff said. “But after the first weekend (of tryouts), I thought the guys were really receptive to what we were doing.”
Cash echoed Hoff’s comments, acknowledging how the smooth transition within the coaching staff has helped for continuous success on the ice.
“I think Coach Hoff’s given the same message throughout, whether he’s the assistant coach or the head coach and that’s having fun with the game,” Cash explained. “He’s made sure that he’s come in with the mindset that we’re going to improve every day.”
Hoff is no stranger to being a head coach. He runs the boys’ program at Bottineau High School in North Dakota. When he was an assistant for the sled team — first under the late Jeff Sauer, then under Guy Gosselin — he got to work closely with players on specific parts of the game. But now, he has to take a broader view.
“My job as the head coach is more of the responsibility of everyone,” Hoff said. “A friend of mine who is from Sweden, we talk about this a lot, ‘The assistant coach speaks to the trees, the head coach speaks to the forest.’ You know what I mean? That kind of sums it up in kind of a foreign way, but I do feel that is more of my responsibility, making sure all of the details related to the team are my responsibility.”
The lessons learned, for both the team and Coach Hoff himself, will be put to good use as the U.S. prepares to open the world championship against Canada on April 27. While the U.S. enters as the reigning Paralympic gold medalists, Canada are the reigning tournament champions after edging the United States, 4-1, at the 2017 event.
Team USA, which has won world titles in 2009, 2012 and 2015, as well as four of the past five Paralympic gold medals, will then face South Korea on April 28 and finish Group A play vs. Norway on April 30. Group A has the strongest four teams in the tournament.
“What better way to go for gold than to play one of the best teams in the tournament?” Hoff explained. “I think the new format, which has been successful with the women in IIHF play, will be good for our sport. We’re looking forward to it.”
Tournament play begins April 27 and will be streamed live in the United States on livestream.org.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.