U.S. National Sled Hockey Team head coach Jeff Sauer always likes to say that success breeds success.
His teams have certainly lived up to the saying.
The United States entered the World Sled Hockey Challenge in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, having won the previous two tournament championships. Furthermore, the Americans have won the past five consecutive major international tournaments and reached the championship in 10 straight events. Tomorrow, the United States has the chance to claim an unprecedented three-straight World Sled Hockey Challenge titles and sixth-straight title overall when it takes on Canada in the World Sled Hockey Challenge championship game at 3 p.m. ET.
“It’s definitely a special feeling to know that we’ve been at the pinnacle of our sport for so long,” said goaltender Steve Cash.
“At the same time, it doesn’t take away from the task at hand and what we need to do at the Sled Challenge, world championships and ultimately the Paralympics in 2018. If we were to win [The World Sled Hockey Challenge], it would be a testament to how hard we’ve been working, not just during the season, but in the offseason.”
Defenseman Josh Pauls attributes the success to hard work the players put forth off the ice, particularly when they’re away from the rink.
“We play together once a month, so it’s really on our shoulders to make sure we’re in shape and top physical form when we get together,” Pauls said.
Players face a unique challenge of a season-long commitment to the team with limited practices, tournaments and games. This season, the team met for three three-day training camps prior to the World Sled Hockey Challenge and will meet three more times in the next several months to prepare for the IPC Sled Hockey World Championships in the spring.
“I think that’s one of the downfalls of the sport, but that’s the nature of it,” Cash said. “That’s why it’s so crucial when we get home, we’re doing what we’re supposed to do and doing what it takes to compete at this level. This isn’t something that pays the bills, but at the same time, you really need to commit yourself each and every day so you don’t fall behind.”
Players also balance their sled hockey careers with full-time jobs, families and schoolwork. Cash believes a strong support system from friends and family is crucial.
Cash feels the team doesn’t play enough events throughout the season, but other countries are facing the same obstacles. Pauls said the growth of sled hockey at the club level has helped players compete on a regular basis.
The seventh annual USA Hockey Sled Classic, presented by the National Hockey League and hosted by the Nashville Predators, took place last month in Antioch, Tennessee, at the Ford Ice Center. The record 24-team field featured 46 games and 300-plus players, including 23 on the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team. The Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators, Carolina Hurricanes and two Colorado Avalanche teams captured championships during the four-day event.
“It helps keep us going and gives us competition we might not get otherwise,” Pauls said. “We try to make the most of camps and opportunities we get to play each other.”
And the payoff has been worth it.
A win in Saturday’s final of the World Sled Hockey Challenge and the U.S. will be the first team to capture three consecutive titles. Pauls feels fortunate to have won just one, let alone two straight titles and now five consecutive major tournaments. Cash said each championship carries its own unique story and special qualities. The U.S. can make it six straight this weekend. Pauls said the tournament is a good barometer of where the team stands.
“It’s something you kind of dream about and we’ve been able to make it a reality,” Pauls said. “Everybody likes winning, and nobody likes losing, but our challenge keeps getting progressively tougher since the world is getting better at sled hockey.”
Pauls, an alternate captain, is well aware of the work that has led to the U.S. team’s run of dominance. Pauls, who is entering his ninth season with the team, has helped the U.S. capture nine major international competitions, including two Paralympic Winter Games, four World Sled Hockey Challenges, two IPC Sled Hockey World Championships and the IPC Pan-Pacific title.
“It has definitely been a fun ride, going from the fifth defenseman, to a third and a first-line forward, back to a first pair defenseman,” Pauls said. “It has been a crazy road, but it speaks to how the team has evolved.”
Cash has led the U.S. to 73 wins since the 2007-08 season, including a perfect mark in 2015 with a 0.26 goals-against average, and 0.97 save percentage and four shutouts. Cash won Paralympic gold medals in 2010 and 2014, in addition to four World Sled Hockey Challenge titles, three Sled Hockey World Championships and a IPC Pan-Pacific title. He also received an ESPY award in 2010 as the Best Athlete with a Disability after not allowing a single goal at the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“When I first made the team, I didn’t know where my career would go,” Cash said. “To see how far I’ve come personally, it’s definitely rewarding and makes me look forward to the future. With that said, I’m not sure I would be where I am today without a great team to back me.”
Cash credits the support from USA Hockey.
“When I first started on the team in 2005, we weren’t under the USA Hockey umbrella and we didn’t get as much funding or support as others,” Cash said. “When USA Hockey took over, our performance definitely took off. This isn’t our full-time job, so when you see guys exponentially getting better because they’re allowed to train off-ice and at home when they’re not with their team, it speaks volumes to where we have come.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.