At 15 years old, Liam Cunningham has become the little brother to the veterans on the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team.
Despite being more than half the age of six of his teammates, Cunningham has fit right in on and off the ice.
After spending one season on the U.S. Men’s Development Sled Hockey Team, Cunningham was given a shot to make the national team this season.
In essentially a final tryout, the senior team invited him to compete at the IPH Cup in Czechia in early October. After helping the squad take home the title, Cunningham earned a roster spot on the national team.
“Going in, I had a lot of nerves,” Cunningham said. “I grew up watching a lot of these guys, Josh Pauls, Declan [Farmer], Brody [Roybal]. But they really took me in as a little brother on the team, they took me in as a family. I just did my best out there and played to my best ability and went from there. It was a blast.”
Cunningham is soaking up as much knowledge as he can from the great role models, namely Pauls and Farmer, on the U.S. team.
“The hockey sense and skills from them is unreal and I’m learning from there. But also just life in general,” Cunningham said. “They’re all great guys and with college coming up for me, I’ve been asking a lot of questions and hope to in the future with them.”
Cunningham — who grew up in River Falls, Wisconsin, but attends Saint Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, Minnesota — relishes the fact that he gets to wear a Team USA sweater and compete in international events.
“It’s surreal to represent the country at that high of a level,” Cunningham said. “Obviously, the guys are older than me, but I’m at the place where I feel like I belong at that stage. I’m hoping to just compete with them and just hope my age doesn’t get in the way.”
Born with a bone disorder that limits sports he can play, Cunningham found sled hockey as a 7-year-old. Growing up in a hockey family, the game came naturally to him. He quickly latched onto the Minnesota Wild sled team and has been a part of that program ever since.
Cunningham, who plays as a defenseman but is versatile enough to play any position, made the U.S. development sled team for the 2022-23 season. After one year of improving his all-around game, Cunningham felt he was ready for the next level.
“I thought I put in enough work for sure,” Cunningham said. “I think I gave myself a good chance and I played to the best of my ability at tryouts and in the Czech tournament. They liked what they saw and I’m glad they took me.”
Making the jump from the development team to the national team can be daunting for players. But Cunningham feels he navigated the adjustmentwell.
“I knew it would be a huge jump to make,” Cunningham said. “Talking to guys, in my opinion and theirs probably too, it’s the hardest jump to make. First off, making that D-team is huge, just from club to that jump is big. Then the development team to the national team is big as well.”
Cunningham is one of just three teenagers on the national team, along with 17-year-old Brett Bolton and 19-year-old Evan Nichols.
With his sled career still in its infancy stages, Cunningham would like to be a fixture on the U.S. squad for years to come. However, he knows nothing is a given and he plans on continuing to work hard on his craft.
“Like coach says, ‘Making it’s tough, but staying on is tougher,’” Cunningham said. “At this point, I’m just trying to maintain a spot and gain strength throughout. But long term, obviously looking for the Paralympics and just playing with these guys as long as possible would be great.”
Cunningham hopes to be a key factor in the Para Hockey Cup, which is taking place in Quispamsis, New Brunswick, from Dec. 3-9.
The four-country event will include the U.S., Canada, China and Czechia.
The U.S. has won seven straight Para Hockey Cup championships and nine titles overall.
At last year’s tournament in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, the U.S. won all fiveof its games to claim the title. Canada gave the Americans their toughest fight in the preliminary round, as it took overtime for the U.S. to earn a 3-2 win.
With the Canadians having home-ice advantage again this year, Cunningham is expecting the U.S. will get another hard-fought battle.
“Canada is always a great competition to play against and I’m sure they’ll have a good crowd out there,” Cunningham said. “It will be a great atmosphere, and I’m just looking forward to seeing the guys.”
Every time Team USA glides onto the ice, there is a target on the players’ backs. This tournament won’t be any different.
“We know teams are gunning for us for sure,” Cunningham said. “The experience of these guys and the amount of winning they’ve done, I’m hoping just to stick with that and get more comfortable with these guys.”
Having won seven straight golds and nine overall, there is only one goal for Team USA this year.
“Make it 10, I guess,” Cunningham said. “Just play our game and have fun out there. Keep doing our thing.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.