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U.S. Sled Team Enters Paralympics With Target On Backs

03/06/2018, 10:00pm EST
By Stuart Lieberman

Team USA goes for three straight golds in PyeongChang

When the puck drops this weekend at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games, the United States will begin its quest in becoming the first country to win three consecutive Paralympic gold medals in sled hockey.

The 17-member U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team, led by captain Josh Pauls and alternate captains Declan Farmer and Nikko Landeros, will walk into Friday’s Opening Ceremony as one of the highest-profile storylines heading into these Winter Games.

Last April, the United States saw its streak of six straight international tournament titles end when it took home a silver medal here in Korea at the 2017 Para Sled Hockey World Championship. With a desire to return to the top, this year’s Paralympic roster includes 10 players who won gold at the Sochi 2014 Games and four players who won gold at the Vancouver 2010 Games. Led by coach and two-time Olympian Guy Gosselin, the U.S. will compete in Group B at the Gangneung Hockey Center alongside South Korea, Japan and the Czech Republic.

“All these teams are really going to be gunning for us as the reigning Paralympic champions, so we’re prepared to face the best in each of our opponents,” said Farmer,  the team’s leading scorer for each of the last four seasons, who is also currently studying economics at Princeton University.

The U.S. has medaled in four of the five Paralympic Winter Games it has competed in, with gold medals in 2002, 2010 and 2014, and a bronze medal in 2006. Four years ago in Sochi, the U.S. became the first country to win back-to-back Paralympic sled hockey gold medals when it beat host Russia, 1-0, in the final. Over the last two Paralympics, the U.S. has outscored its opponents 32-2, winning nine of its 10 games.

Farmer was named 2014 Best Male Paralympian by the IPC after leading Team USA with nine points

The Americans will be playing with heavy hearts in PyeongChang, using their pregame chants to honor late coach Jeff Sauer, who lost his battle with pancreatic cancer in February 2017 after coaching the national program for six years.

“We’re always thinking about the messages he gave us over time coaching our team,” Farmer said. “He made everything fun, even going to practice and training camps. He made everyone love what we do. This tournament is for him. Win or lose, we’ll be putting forth our best effort trying to make Coach proud.”

Sauer helped many of the program’s players gain a better sense of the game and learn to be more tactical on the ice, which Dan Brennan, general manager of the 2018 U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team, asserts has raised both the team’s potential and expectations drastically. 

Goaltender Steve Cash returns after being the U.S. flag bearer at the closing ceremonies in Sochi

“A few weeks ago, I watched video with the team of us playing in Sochi, and me and some of the players were almost giggling at some of the plays we were making because the team now is so far ahead of where we were four years ago, and definitely eight years ago in Vancouver,” Brennan said. “We like where we’re at, we’re just trying to time it right so we can peak at the right time to get to the gold-medal game and then see what happens.”

Pauls, a three-time Paralympian who has helped Team USA to three world titles, insists the squad’s two keys to success to get to that gold-medal game again will be using its speed to advantage and continuously passing the puck rather than skating it around the ice. Puck possession and smart plays will make the difference.

Although Pauls dons the “C” on his jersey and leads warm-ups in practice, a case can be made that all 17 players ranging from age 18 to 36 on the team — which includes six players who served in the U.S. Armed Forces — possess leadership qualities in one way or another.

“You don’t make this team without having some sort of leadership in you,” Pauls said. “Everybody has a leadership role on this team, whether they have a letter or not. Everybody leads in a different way, whether it’s on the ice with their play or vocally in the locker room.”

Goaltender Steve Cash, a three-time Paralympic medalist who has allowed just two goals in 10 games of Paralympic play, and forward Brody Roybal, who in four years on the team already ranks among the top 10 in program history in goals, assists and points, are perfect examples of that.

Expect to see all of these leaders on NBCSN, with all of Team USA’s sled hockey contests to be shown as part of NBC Sports Group’s record 250 hours of coverage across its platforms, including 94 on television.

And the raw sound coming on the broadcast from the Gangneung Hockey Center is expected to be deafening.

“The biggest thing that always gets me excited going into the Paralympics is that not only will there be friends and family in the crowd, but there’s also going to be thousands of people either cheering for you or against you,” Pauls said. “Just having those fans there creating that atmosphere, it’s going to be unlike anything we ever get.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

2018 U.S. Paralympic Roster

Paralympic Sled Homepage

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U.S. Paralympic Schedule

Date Opponent/Round Result Venue
Sun., March 11 Japan
W, 10-0 Gangneung Hockey Centre
Mon., March 12 Czech Republic
W, 10-0 Gangneung Hockey Centre
Tues., March 13 Korea
W, 8-0 Gangneung Hockey Centre
Thurs., March 15 Italy
W, 10-1 Gangneung Hockey Centre
Sun., March 18 Canada
Gold-Medal Game
W, 2-1 (OT) Gangneung Hockey Centre

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