BUFFALO, N.Y. – When the puck dropped on the opening game at the 2015 IPC Sled Hockey World Championship, there were two local heroes on the United States roster. Tonight there are 15 more.
After its dominating 3-0 victory over Canada, the city of Buffalo and entire area of Western New York is ready to adopt every player on the U.S. Sled Hockey Team. And after the reception they’ve received this week, the feeling is more than mutual.
USA Hockey brought the event to the shores of Lake Erie because of its long-time relationship with the Buffalo Sabres and a belief that the local hockey community is as good as it is anywhere in the country. And as the event drew to a close on Sunday afternoon, the question was not if but when the city will have a chance to welcome the world again.
Today, more than 1,500 vocal fans came to support not only the athletes from both the U.S. and Canada but to get behind a sport that has been consistently growing in popularity. It was the largest crowd to watch a sled hockey game in the United States since the gold-medal game of the 2002 Paralympics in Salt Lake City.
“It’s really something to have everyone behind you,” said Josh Pauls, who was named the top defenseman in the tournament. “It gives you that extra little boost to get up in the morning and get ready to go play. Even if you have a bad shift and they’re chanting U-S-A, it just makes you want to get back out there and go crush someone or put the puck in the net or do something good.”
Over the years the U.S. Sled Team has enjoyed the loyal support of family and friends, who travel to the ends of the earth back their team. But that small pocket of fans clustered together can often be drowned out in a building packed with those cheering against you.
“These guys don’t play in front of a lot of fans, normally, and we haven’t had a lot of home games over the course of time. We’ve played in front of 500 or 600 people at times. But this is a great crowd and it was a great atmosphere,” said U.S. Head Coach Jeff Sauer.
“I think we sold the sport today, both Canada and the U.S. To be able to get an opportunity to see these athletes perform. I thought they did an excellent job today. Both teams played hard, they played well, and you can sell tickets to this game today.”
It helped that two of the U.S. players, Adam Page of Lancaster and Paul Schaus of Buffalo, had ties to the community. And both players didn’t disappoint their supporters as Page led the U.S. in points while Schaus played solid defense while chipping in a pair of timely goals.
“The whole tournament I was just focused on my game and went and had fun with it the entire week,” said Page. “It was really a great week for me, but I couldn’t have done it without my linemates, too, so hats off to them.”
From the drop of the puck in the opening game against Russia until long after the final buzzer sounded on Sunday’s title game, the fans gave the U.S. players something that means as much as the gold medal hanging around their neck. They gave them the respect that is normally given to any high level athlete who wears the red, white and blue on the international arena.
It also gives future generations of disabled athletes the chance to dream of one day representing their country in front of an arena packed with loyal fans screaming their names.
“To win a World Championship on home soil is special and I can definitely say that I’ll look back in a few years and say that people were able to live it through us,” said goalie Steve Cash, who has backstopped the U.S. to a third World Championship title in addition to a pair of Paralympic gold medals.
“A lot of time in the past we’ve won big games like this on foreign soil and people get to watch it on TV. The fact that fans got to come out and support us and see us come out on top it makes it a great feeling.”
Thanks to the support from the local community, and the national television coverage, there is a new legion of sled hockey fans around the country. And where once they toiled in relative anonymity, now names like Cash, Farmer, Roybal and Landeros are quickly becoming household names with USA Hockey fans everywhere.
“It’s just showing the huge potential the sport has in and of itself,” Cash said.
“When I first started playing in 2005 my family struggled to just to see it go from little tidbits here and there of the Torino Games on the computer. Now our games are played live on the middle of a Sunday. [The 2014 Paralympic Games] brought a lot of attention last year and this will bring as much if not more. It makes the future bright for the sport.”
Tag(s): 2015 Sled Worlds