As Travis Dodson (Deming, New Mexico) prepares for his first international competition as a member of the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team, he vividly remembers watching elite-level sled hockey for the first time.
A native of Deming, New Mexico, Dodson knew little of ice hockey, let alone sled hockey, while he was competing in Sochi, Russia, at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games as a cross-country skier. Still, he and the Team USA skiers were on the other side of a mountain from the hockey rinks, riveted to the broadcast.
Team USA defeated Russia to win its second straight Paralympic gold medal and third in four Paralympic Games, dating back to the 2002 Paralympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
“That was my first time seeing sled hockey at that level,” Dodson remembered. “We watched them win the gold medal and we were really excited for them. It was such an exciting game, and I remember thinking, ‘I can be a part of that. I can help them repeat.’ I decided right there in Sochi that I was done with cross-country skiing and committed to sled hockey.”
Less than four years later, Dodson, 32, is in his first season with the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team and preparing for his first international event as he and Team USA gear up for the 2017 World Sled Hockey Challenge in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Dec. 3-9 against Italy, Korea and hosts Canada.
Also preparing for his first national team competition is defenseman Ralph DeQuebec (San Pedro, Calif.) who served as a co-captain on last year’s U.S. Development Sled Hockey Team. Joining the pair in seeking their Paralympic sled hockey debuts is third-year member Josh Misiewicz (La Grange, Ill.) and fourth-year members Billy Hanning (Festus, Mo.) and Luke McDermott (Westerlo, N.Y.).
Luke McDermott is one of five players looking to make Paralympic debuts in 2018
“It’s super exciting,” said the 30-year-old McDermott, a native of Westerlo, New York. “This is why you try to make the team, so you can make the Paralympics. The years in between are important, but you only get the chance to compete in the Paralympics once every four years.”
Team USA is a giant in sled hockey. In addition to winning Paralympic gold in 2014, 2010 and 2002, the squad won bronze in 2006 and has seven world championship medals, including three gold (2009, 2012, 2015), three silver (2004, 2013, 2017), and bronze in 2008. Last year’s silver medal followed a run of six-straight major international tournament wins and qualified Team USA for PyeongChang.
While Dodson is new to the team, McDermott helped Team USA win the 2015 International Paralympic Sled Hockey World Championship as well as first-place finishes in the last three World Sled Hockey Challenge championships, a feat no other nation has accomplished. A year ago, he picked up a goal and two assists in the tournament.
Dodson, DeQuebec, McDermott and Misiewicz all have something else in common: They are former U.S. Marines who lost their limbs in battle. In fact, five of the current members of the national team are military veterans.
“I think it helps us keep the mindset of doing everything for that one goal,” Dodson said of the military connection. “It doesn’t matter who does what, if you score the goal or get the assist, you help the team win. That’s the same way it was in the military. It wasn’t about who did what, it was about what we accomplished.”
McDermott said there’s also a distinct connection because of what they faced.
“It’s a shared experience only the five of us will understand,” he said. “We’re part of a team again. In the military, you’re always part of a team, doing things for the guy to the left or right of you. Being on the national team, it’s the same thing, giving your all for each other every time you’re out there.”
McDermott underwent a bilateral below-the-knee amputation after being injured by an improvised explosive device while on patrol as a Marine in Afghanistan in 2010. While rehabbing at the Center for the Intrepid in Texas, his physical therapist asked if he’d be interested in sled hockey.
“I figured at the very least it would help me get my strength back so I gave it a shot,” he said, “I never played before. Once you make the national team, you pretty much know everyone on the national team from playing against them or with them in club competitions. It’s fun to be around them. Some of them have been doing this a long time, so it’s great going to training camp.”
Dodson, also a U.S. Marine, lost his legs after being struck by a grenade in Iraq in 2007. He has been playing sled hockey for just three years, but making the national team solidified his shot at making it to the Paralympic Winter Games in the sport.
“It took a lot of time,” he said of getting good enough, utilizing the help of a friend in Chicago to join a club team. He dedicated himself to days at the rink even when his team wasn’t practicing or playing.
“It’s a lot harder than I thought it was going to be, as crazy as that sounds,” Dodson said. “I come from more individual sports. I did wheelchair racing first, then biathlon, and cross-country skiing, and they were all solo. Coming in and doing things as a team is refreshing. I really enjoy the camaraderie. They’re helping you, you’re helping them.”
McDermott agreed that it is hard, but rewarding.
“Playing with these guys is a blast,” he said. “There’s a lot of experience on this team. Some of them have been doing this a long time and are going to be in their third Paralympic Games.”
And for the prospects of making the final Team USA roster to compete in PyeongChang, McDermott has just one thought.
“I’m ridiculously excited.”
The U.S. National Sled Hockey Team opens its international competition against Korea on Sunday, Dec. 3, at 11:00 a.m. ET. The 2017 World Sled Hockey Challenge will be streamed live at HockeyTV.com. For more tournament information, click here.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.