BEIJING — The lights will go down at the National Indoor Stadium. The crowd will buzz as the light show on the ice begins. The countdown will commence. And the members of the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team will be finalizing their preparation for the final matchup of the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games.
For Josh Pauls, it will be his fourth time preparing for a gold-medal game. For others, it will be their third or second. And for six, it will be their first. No matter the number and no matter the venue, the feeling of excitement, and anticipation never changes.
You throw out the record when it comes to a U.S. Canada matchup, no matter the stage. The players know that anything can happen and that the result in the first matchup in this tournament does not mean much anymore. Head coach David Hoff said the team’s focus is solely on the Sunday game.
“Anything can happen in hockey, and we’ve just got to prepare ourselves physically and mentally to be in the right frame of mind. We’re going to have to stick with it. They’re always a tough challenge for us, but I think if we prepare ourselves as best we can, we’re going to have a chance on Sunday for sure.”
“You can’t look back,” said forward Josh Misiewicz, who is set to play in his second gold-medal game. “You have to look at this game and focus on getting one more win. We just need to play our game.”
In the first gold-medal matchup Misiewicz played in was a wild one. Declan Farmer tied the game up with less than a minute left before scoring the golden goal in overtime to secure the third straight gold medal for the U.S. Misiewicz said he is a little more calm going into this gold-medal matchup, but he knows the intensity will be there.
“The first gold-medal game was intense. You definitely have those nerves going. I’m a little more calm this time around, but I know as soon as the puck drops, it’s going to be intense again.”
The player with the most experience in these games is Pauls. In his four Paralympics, he has never missed a gold-medal game and never finished lower than on top of the podium. The captain is prepared to lead the team into the matchup and will draw upon his experience.
“I’ve learned in my previous games that anything can happen. The three previous games have all been kind of unique and very different, but I have definitely learned that the nerves don’t go away. I still get those butterflies in my stomach and I’m still excited and anxious to play.
“It’s definitely some of the most intense hockey I’ve ever played.”
In the first matchup in the preliminary round, the U.S. shut Canada out 5-0. They didn’t feel like they played their best game, but got some contribution from veterans and newcomers alike. The focus was to just continue to get better from there, and they beat South Korea 9-1 before knocking off China, 11-0, in the semifinals. One of the newcomers who scored in the first matchup against Canada, and has scored in every matchup so far this tournament, is Malik Jones.
Jones was a player the team expected to contribute and he has come up in big ways for the team through the first three games scoring four goals including one in his first matchup against Canada. Playing in a gold-medal game has been something he has dreamt about since it was seven and now the moment has arrived.
“It’s just a surreal feeling. I’m super excited to battle it out with these guys. There’s nobody else I’d rather battle with, so I’m just ready to get after it.
“It’s always a good battle with two good things and we know it’s going to be super high intensity. They want to win, we want to win, and I’m expecting the intensity to be up there because they will be coming after us for sure.”
For four years, the team has had a dream to collect a gold medal. From training as a team to training by themselves to coming together as a team for a month-long residency program, they have worked tirelessly for this moment. When the puck drops, they will leave it all out on the ice.
“It’s just such a rush to be able to be with these guys,” said Pauls. “The group we have and the confidence that we have in the locker room in order to reach our goals and expectations is something that we’re really excited for.”