BEIJING — It all started a number of years ago. Josh Pauls was hanging out at the rink and a trainer touched the top of his head.
“It feels like a potato.”
And thus began the legend of the artist formerly known as Josh. Go ahead, call him Josh from across the way. He likely won’t respond as he has taken kindly to the “Spuds” moniker. He keeps a Mr. Potato Head in the locker room and points it at the opponent's locker room (likely with the “angry eyes” attached). When he was getting pushed in a shopping cart, he made a member of the team film him saying “It’s a potato being pushed in a shopping cart!” He’s all in.
“I remember somebody yelled “Josh” from across the rink. They were talking to me, but I didn’t respond because most people call me Spuds.”
Now, “Spuds” has set the record for the most games played by a U.S. sled hockey player at the Paralympics. His 17th appearance, which was made against South Korea in the second and final preliminary round game, is one more than Joe Howard.
“It’s an honor, but I couldn’t have done it without all of the guys who came before me, all of the guys that I started playing with that helped me along the way. You really don’t think too much about setting this kind of thing, but obviously, it’s special to be recognized for that.”
The journey for Pauls started back at the 2010 Paralympics — the only current member of the team that competed in the Vancouver Games, which started a stretch of three-straight gold medals. Pauls almost didn’t make that team either. It was up and down on whether he would grace the lineup and when he finally did, he did not let go of that spot.
Head coach David Hoff feels like he has a room full of leaders in his locker room, but Pauls sticks out. The now two-time captain is the vocal leader on the team and the way he goes about his business is something the rest of the team can follow, according to Hoff. It’s what makes “Spuds” “Spuds.”
“When you think about 2010, 12 years ago, whether you think that’s a long time or not a long time, it’s really amazing,” Hoff said of Pauls setting the record. “He’s developed into just such a good leader. He’s the vocal leader in the locker room, and I think that’s the biggest thing he brings. He certainly has deserved to play this many games.”
Jack Wallace is now competing in his second Paralympic Games. A veteran and a leader in his own right, Wallace stopped to talk about the impact “Spuds” has had on the team and the U.S. program as a whole.
“He’s an absolute legend of the game. He leads by example. He’s always doing the right things and saying the right things, it’s great and he’s sometimes infallible. He’s a great guy to have in the room.”
Pauls was 17 when he made his Paralympics debut in 2010. That’s an incredible feat for anybody. Now, he has two young members of the team that have made their debut and a big impact in the first two games in 17-year-old Evan Nichols and 19-year-old Malik Jones. Jones has three goals through the first two games and Nichols collected three points in his Paralympic debut.
Pauls wants to make sure that the next generation continues to have the opportunities that players like himself, Nichols and Jones had. Throw in Brody Roybal and Declan Farmer, who made their debuts at 15 and 16-years-old respectively,
“USA Hockey has really helped us grow the sport. They’ve helped us be able to train in a manner that allows us to have success. We’re obviously thankful for that but we’re also still trying to get better. We want to grow the sport. We want to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to play. We want to continue to grow the sport at the grassroots level., but
“The National Team level of success is great but I think that it shows when you invest in the lower levels of sled hockey and disabled sports, it pays dividends.”
As for his career at the National Team level and Paralympics level, Pauls has shown no sign of stopping. The leader in the locker room is a staple on the defensive end, and you rarely see him making a mistake on the ice. That type of leadership rubs off on the players. He certainly wants to keep that going on the way to a fourth-straight gold medal.
“I want a couple more appearances, ideally. But right now, we need to make sure we’re mentally and physically sharp. It’s going to be great to get into the swing of things with practice this week and really fine-tune the things that make us a great team preparing for the semifinals.”