If its performance at the inaugural International Para Hockey Cup this past September in Ostrava, Czech Republic, is any indication, the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team is still at the top of its game.
In their first tournament since winning a fourth straight Paralympic gold medal in Beijing in February, the Americans dominated the five games, outscoring foes 41-4. The U.S. picked up two wins over rival Canada during that run, including a 4-0 triumph in the championship game.
“We didn't have a training camp before the IPH Cup in the Czech Republic and we needed to knock some rust and some cobwebs off,” said Jack Wallace (Franklin Lake, N.J.), a two-time Paralympic gold medalist. “But by the end of that tournament, we were flowing really well. I’m happy with where the team’s at and I know we're just getting better as the season progresses so I’m excited to see what everyone brings to Canada.”
Wallace is referring to the Para Hockey Cup in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, from Nov. 27 to Dec. 3. His assessment should have the other three teams in the tournament — Canada, Czech Republic and Italy — a bit wary of what else the U.S. can do. The Americans are six-time defending champions of the Para Hockey Cup and open play Nov. 27 against Czechia.
Another factor in what makes the U.S. click is how much of a tight-knit group the players maintain.
“I think what makes our team the best is that we have those little pockets of guys,” said Brody Roybal (Northlake, Ill.), a three-time Paralympian who is among a handful of players living in the Nashville, Tennessee, area. “Denver also has a good group of guys, so they have five, six, seven guys on the national team as well. Just living in those areas makes it so much easier to get better than having to just train by yourself when you have those guys pushing you every day. Some days, it’s like, ‘I don’t really want to go skate,’ but when everyone else is going, you’re going to go skate.”
Wallace is also part of the group that lives in Nashville and said the bond that is created by being around each other as much as they are creates an advantage that doesn’t just show up in games.
“It’s not only building chemistry and playing with each other and doing what we do so well,” Wallace said. “But it’s also that compete level that everyone brings to the team. That compete level stays so high when we’re able to constantly compete against each other in practice.”
“That’s one of our main attributes that coach [David Hoff] always talks about, how no team competes harder than we do. So we bring that to games, but we also bring that to practice and we also bring that to training back home.”
As the six-time defending champ of the Para Hockey Cup and with such a stellar list of achievements, you might think the U.S. feels the pressure to constantly be on top of its game.
“To be totally fair, I don’t think we really feel the pressure from those previous wins for this tournament because it’s always kind of a midseason thing for us where we’re really just trying to gear up for the next big tournament,” Wallace said. “Obviously we take it seriously. It’s before we take a little bit of a break in the winter and get ready for that world championship. I really don’t feel that there is a lot of pressure coming towards us.”
Even with a target on their backs, the Americans don’t necessarily feel a bitterness from their opponents. There is a simple reason behind that.
“I think that our team holds ourselves with class and we want to continue to do so,” Roybal said. “But we just want to play our best hockey. I think that's the reason that teams might look up to us, not because of our abilities or hockey, is how our team holds ourselves. I think that we’re extremely respectful when we travel. We treat everyone with respect and I think that’s why other teams look to our team as something to mimic or try to recreate.”
As the U.S. look to bring home another championship at the Para Hockey Cup, the players know it is on them to continuously prove their worth.
“I think just, ‘play a team game,’” Roybal said of the key to the Para Hockey Cup. “I think that’s what also makes our team so good is that we have 17 guys who are the 17 best players in the world. Other teams might have to double shift guys, double shift lines. I think that our team, if we can just run our lines and play our hockey game, we're going to do well again.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.