BEIJING - As the fireworks blasted and the Paralympians from all over the world watched in awe at the spectacle of the Opening Ceremony, the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games were officially declared “open.” With that came the long-anticipated reality that 2022 U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team was about to take the world stage against its bitter rivals from up north — Canada.
No matter the venue, no matter the discipline, no matter the stage— when the United States and Canada meet up on the ice, you know you are in for a heck of a matchup. The U.S. Women’s Olympic Team dropped a heartbreaker, 3-2, in the gold-medal matchup two weeks ago while the U.S. Men’s Olympic Team defeated Canada in their lone preliminary round tilt.
Now, it’s time for the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team to shine.
“It feels like it's been a long time coming. I mean, it seems like we were packing up from the residency program a couple of weeks ago,” said Declan Farmer, set to compete in his third Paralympics. “We're ready to jump into it, it's been a blast so far here. We're ready for some games.”
It’s a rivalry that sometimes isn’t fully understood until you’re involved in it. For Rico Roman, who has been battling against Canada for nearly a decade, he did not quite fully grasp it until he was on the team. He said the first time he was getting ready to play Canada, they were “mean mugging” him in the lobby and he was taken aback.
“I had been to Canada a bunch of times and had nothing but fun there, so I didn’t quite understand why they were doing that. Then you get into the games and you understand that they had a lot of pride and want to win a gold medal just as badly as we do. I think that’s what makes our competition with them so intense.
“You know, myself, I just leave it on the ice. I play hard against everybody. And at the end of the day, it's a game. I don't take anything off the ice. But, you know, hey, they got a lot to prove and so do we.”
The two teams are expected to meet up in the gold-medal matchup to close this year’s Paralympics, which would be a familiar spot for each of the squads. They have met up in the past three gold-medal games on the world stage (2018 Paralympics and the 2019 and 2021 World Para Ice Hockey Championships). It is never an easy matchup for either team. Take the 2018 gold-medal game, for example, where the U.S. trailed most of the game. Enter Farmer.
“We started to press a little bit more at the end. They hit the post with about a minute left and then chaos kind of ensued. I think I dropped my stick and was late getting into the offensive zone, and that delay just put me in the perfect spot to pick up that loose puck and find the back of the net on the other end.” He would go on to score the clincher in overtime to secure the country’s third-straight gold medal and fourth overall.
The 2019 Sled Worlds finale utilized overtime heroics from Brody Roybal to give the U.S. the gold before the U.S. won in dominating fashion in 2021, allowing just one shot in a 5-1 victory.
“I thought we really played our style of hockey. It's something we've been kind of building towards playing at a really high pace. And when I say I pace some of that's physical with the movement of the sled, but also it's the pace of the mind. And I thought we really made quick decisions,” said head coach David Hoff. “We tried to build off of that. We opened our first camp saying we talked a little bit about that and said ‘now let’s move past it.’ Let's not dwell on that because the next time you play them, it's always a good battle, but we can't live on that performance.”
The proof that either team can respond after a tough loss was evident in the first post-worlds matchup in October.
“We had a border series, a two-game series, and Saint Louis in October, and they beat us in that first game of that, which was the first game either team played after that gold medal game at Worlds. So we know they can respond and we're ready for it,” said Farmer.
“The reason we’ve been two of the better teams in the world, is you learn from those whether you win or lose, and you move on to the next battle,” said Hoff. “And usually when we play each other, it's a one goal game going one way or the other. And that's no different than what we expect here. We want to play our best game. They're going to be the same way. We just want to come out on top.”
While it may only be a preliminary round game, it will set the tone for the rest of the tournament. The intensity will be on the ice and four years of build up from the last Paralympics will be shown from the drop of the puck. Roman said the team is ready.
“Four years seems like a long time. But it was so much uncertainty this last four years. To be here in the process, going through, gearing up with all these practices, playing overseas. I mean, I'm never going to take this for granted and especially being on one of the best teams in the world with my brothers. So I hope we bring it this whole tournament and have fun.”