When you win a gold medal at the Paralympic Winter Games in dramatic, overtime fashion, you earn the right to celebrate.
This past Spring and Summer has seen every sort of celebration possible for the gold medalists on the 2018 U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team. Appearances at NHL, MLB and NFL games. A visit to the White House with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Delegation. Local hometown honors in the forms of parades and ‘day’ recognitions. Not to mention all the personal celebrations done amongst families and friends.
It’s common, to see championship teams at the professional level follow up their title-winning seasons with lackluster performances after an offseason of celebrations.
It’s uncommon to see that with USA Hockey's sled hockey program.
“You have to enjoy success, but then you have to move on,” said first-year U.S. head coach David Hoff, who was an assistant on last year’s gold medal-winning squad. “That’s what this program has done so well. When you look at the run this program has been on, that’s what makes it special and that’s part of our job as a staff, to make sure we get past March and move onto 2018-19. That’s the challenge in front of this team.”
Team USA won an unprecedented third-straight gold medal at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games
Hoff’s comments on the program’s success aren’t just based on this past season, which saw the U.S. compile a 15-1-0-1 record that included championship wins at the 2017 World Sled Hockey Challenge in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and the 2018 Turin Para Ice Hockey International Tournament in addition to the Paralympic gold-medal triumph.
Nor do his comments refer solely to the team’s Paralympic success, where the U.S. has claimed an unprecedented third straight gold medal, and fourth total, at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games. No other country has won more than one since the sport made its Paralympic debut in 1994.
No, when Hoff refers to the ‘run’ this program has been on, one need look no further than the 43-4-1-3 (W-OTW-OTL-L) record in all competitions over the last four years and eight consecutive gold-medal game berths at the Paralympic and World Championship level since 2009. In those gold-medal game appearances, the U.S. has posted a 6-2 record while claiming three Paralympic gold medals (2010, 2014, 2018) and three world championship gold medals (2009, 2012, 2015). Its two losses came in world championship play (2013, 2017).
This season, the U.S. will be aiming for a ninth consecutive gold-medal game berth at the 2019 Para Ice Hockey World Championships next April.
But first comes the 2018 Para Hockey Cup – formerly called the World Sled Hockey Challenge — which takes place in London, Ontario, from Dec. 2-8 and serves as Team USA’s first tournament since capturing Olympic gold.
It’s an event in which the U.S. is the four-time defending champion after earning titles at the 2017 and 2016 (Jan. and Dec.) events in Charlottetown, the January 2016 competition in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, and the February 2015 tournament in Leduc, Alberta. In all 11 editions of the event, Team USA has earned a tournament-best six titles and a 31-4-1-12 all-time record.
Team USA at the 2017 WSHC
The U.S. has conducted three camps in the lead-up to this year’s event, a pattern consistent with its previous winning seasons.
“It’s basically a lot of practice against ourselves,” Hoff said. “This tournament is always a good measuring stick for us as a team. We’re excited to get out there, play, and see what this team excels at and where we need to get better."
This year’s group includes 12 returnees from the gold medal-winning 2018 Paralympic Team.
Highlighting the returnees are forwards Declan Farmer and Brody Roybal, in addition to defenseman Josh Pauls and goaltender Steve Cash. Farmer tied the U.S. and Paralympic records for goals in a single Paralympic Games with 11, including the tying and winning goals in the gold-medal game while Roybal was named tournament MVP at the Paralympics with 17 points in five games. Together, the foursome has helped the U.S. to two Paralympic gold medals (2014, 2018) and a world championship (2015).
Five newcomers will also join the group, including national team returnees Josh Sweeney and Chris Douglas. Sweeney previously played five seasons with the U.S. (2011-16), which included him scoring the golden goal in the gold-medal game of the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games and serving two seasons as captain (2014-16). Douglas, meanwhile skated alongside Sweeney from 2014-16. Both were on the 2014-15 roster that went undefeated en route to the IPC Sled Hockey World Championship on home ice in Buffalo, New York.
The three players making their national team debuts this season are Colin Gooley, Kyle Zych and Josh Hargis. All three spent the 2017-18 season with the U.S. Men’s Development Sled Hockey Team.
“We have a tight team right now,” Hoff said. “These guys genuinely like being around each other. There’s times after team meals where we have to remind them that they can leave the room and do things on their own.”
The team unity, in part, is due to the air of excitement and fun that comes with winning. It was all smiles in March when the U.S. celebrated a gold medal at the Paralympic Winter Games and it’s been all smiles since.
The victory was far from certain, though. With one minute to play in the gold-medal game, Canada held a 1-0 lead and Team USA had Cash pulled for an extra attacker. Roybal set up Farmer for the tying goal with 37.8 seconds to play. Farmer netted the gold medal-winning goal with 11:30 left in overtime to clinch the victory.
A win like that is something players dream of, and something coaches can use as significant learning moments.
“The whole experience was incredible,” said Hoff. “I think that’s what everyone dreams about, to be in that environment, and make one play in overtime to win the gold medal. It speaks to the focus of our guys and their mindset. It wasn’t about winning the gold medal. It was about winning the game, and with that came the gold medal.”
The U.S. have turned the page heading into the Para Hockey Cup, aware that every team will be giving their best to offset the reigning champions. With the event being held on Canadian ice, Hoff knows it will be a raucous, competitive environment.
Still, Hoff’s focus entering this tournament is to see how the U.S. competes against the rest of the world in its first tournament after capturing gold eight months ago.
“This is a tournament of pride and it’s one we’d love to win,” Hoff said. “It’s really to prepare ourselves, looking towards the end of the season and trying to win the world championship. We need to do things now that will put us in a spot to win in April.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.