Updated: May 7, 2015

U.S. Sled Hockey Schools Canada In Taking World Championship Gold

By Gary Norris Gray-BASN Staff Reporter

OAKLAND, CA.-Buffalo, New York, is close by the United States and Canadian border.  Hockey is Canada’s national winter sport.  Two of the Original Six National Hockey League teams were Canadian. Thus, the ice of Buffalo’s Harbor Center arena was a prime showplace for the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team to shut out Canada 3-0 and the seize gold in the 2015 Ice Sledge Hockey World Championships on May 3.

This win added to the gold medals which the U.S. team won in the 2010 Vancouver and 2014 Sochi Paralympics.  Canada and the U.S. have divided the gold medals between them 3-2, in favor of the U.S., in the world championships in the last five meetings since 2008.

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Given the importance of hockey in Canada, U.S. coach Jeff Sauer said that the U.S. team goes into the matches looking for the respect of the Canadians. “That’s what we’re seeking more than anything,” Sauer said. Sauer has been in the middle of the rivalry for decades, He helped coach his first U.S. Men’s National Team at the 1985 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship. He has seen things intensify over the years as the U.S. has developed into a top international contender at every level.

The win illustrates the profile of the U.S. team and the sport itself, which has gained greater visibility since the U.S. beat Russia 1- 0 to take gold at the Sochi Paralympics. Sled hockey allows participants with a physical disability, often due to amputation or spinal injury, to play ice hockey while seated on sleds. Players propel themselves with shortened hockey sticks. The game was invented in Sweden in the early 1960s at a rehabilitation center.

The U.S. came into this season with a turnover of half of its championship roster from Sochi.  Four American players, team captain Josh Sweeney, Paul Schaus, Josh Misiewicz, and Luke McDermott are retired U.S. Marines, all of whom had both legs amputated when wounded by land mines while on duty in Afghanistan.  Sweeney and Schaus were both on the Sochi gold team; Misiewicz and McDermott are rookies.  All except McDermott played regular hockey at some level before joining the Marines. Sweeney, Schaus, and McDermott play as forwards in what U.S. Coach Jeff Sauer calls his “All Marine Line.”

Sweeney scored the breakaway goal that defeated the host Russian team 1-0 in the finals at Sochi, bringing the sport to international attention.

          In addition to more experienced players,  Team USA featured two dynamic teenagers, Brody Roybal, 16, and Declan Farmer, 17, indicative of the bright future for the team and the sport. Together, combined for 13 points and 22 shots on goal and played a major role in each of the USA’s victories. Roybal, who plays for the Chicago Blackhawks club team, and Farmer, who plays for the Tampa Bay Lightning club team, have been popular with NBC Sports and other media outlets. It was Farmer who broke a scoreless tie 2:58 into the third period of the final game, before Daniel McCoy and Joshua Pauls completed the win for the U.S.  

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Each day at the championships, both dedicated and merely curious spectators trickled into the Harbor Center arena, where tickets for preliminary games were available for as little as $5.  The sport was new, U.S. goalie Steve Cash, who was in net at Sochi as well, said the win on U.S. ice was particularly significant. “To do this in front of our home fans and in front of a lot of people who have never even been exposed to sledge hockey before, it gives me a feeling of pride and speaks volumes to where the sport has come and how much it has grown.”

Each sled hockey player has his own story of physical loss and recovery, which each is willing to share. Sled hockey has become more than just a feel-good inspirational tale. Thanks to the work of USA Hockey and increased media coverage. It is viewed as a sport and the participants as athletes, which in turn allows for the sport to become more developed.

“Obviously if you have a game out there with a bunch of beginners who are first trying sled hockey, it does become more of a feel-good moment, guys just giving it an effort as opposed to competing against each other,” goaltender Steve Cash told The Buffalo News. “I think now that the sport’s evolved into something where year after year we’re competing for a championship, you see more people grabbing on to the sport and seeing it as a competitive sport rather than recreational one.”

For former Marine Luke McDermott, playing becomes an honor to wear a U.S. uniform and to serve his country. “Obviously not in the same capacity. But when we got hurt, we were taken off the battlefield. Taken from our units. You’re on your own, in a way, in your recovery. You’re not in the team aspect anymore. Not with your brothers anymore. But to find sled hockey, and then to put that jersey on and represent your country again in a different way, is huge.”

For each of the Marines, finding their way into sled hockey helped put them on the road to recovery, both in body and in spirit.

“Me and my two brothers played hockey all the time,” said Misiewicz, who first fell in love with the game as a kid growing up near Chicago, and later saw some ice time at Saint Mary’s University in Minnesota. “Peewee, high school. You play with your buddies and start loving the game. When I joined the Marines [in 2008], I wanted to join a men’s league, but then went to Afghanistan. You’d think about [hockey] a lot, because it was so hot — that it would be nice to be in an ice rink. Then one of the first thoughts when I got injured was that I would never play hockey again.”

Misiewicz and Schaus were drawn to USA Warriors, a non-profit program that helps wounded military vets rebuild their lives through hockey.  McDermott learned hockey through the Center for the Intrepid, a rehabilitation facility located next to the San Antonio Military Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in Texas and funded through public donations to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund.

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Team USA Captain Josh Sweeney also did his rehabilitation in San Antonio, where he learned about the sled program because it was there.  “I was fortunate enough to be in San Antonio, Texas where there was already a team. If I hadn’t gone there, who knows if I would be playing today.” Sweeney and McDermott both played for the San Antonio Rampage sled hockey team.

“The accessibility is still an issue. Because unlike regular hockey or roller hockey, you can’t be a disabled individual and go to any rink in the country and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to try sled hockey.’ You just can’t do it,” Sweeney said.

To that end, Labatt USA, the American unit of the Canadian brewing company, announced an historic partnership with USA Hockey. The company’s goal is to raise $250,000 to fund 10 adult sled hockey teams across the country. Labatt USA is headquartered in Buffalo, the showplace for sled hockey just and across the border of Canada.

The Sochi games received the most extensive television coverage of any Paralympics in history. NBC Sports Network broadcast the final game live, in addition to 40 hours of coverage across various live or online sports platforms. NBC Sports Live Extra streamed every game of the championships. Six of the eight competing countries also broadcast parts of the competition, through television or online streaming in Italy, Russia, Japan, Germany, and the U.S. and Canada.

“Team USA’s victory over Russia in the gold-medal final was one of the great stories of the Sochi Paralympic Games, and we’re excited to showcase sled hockey to a national audience once again,” said Gary Zenkel, president of NBC’s Olympics coverage and its operations and strategy sports group.  Xavier Gonzalez, CEO of the International Paralympic Committee which partnered with NBC to broadcast sled hockey, said “The sport has gained huge popularity in the U.S. and worldwide in the last 12 months, and this agreement shows that major broadcasters are continuing to recognize the value and demand for para-sport.”


Gary Norris Gray – Writer, Author, Historian. Gibbs Magazine-Oakland, California and New England Informer- Boston Mass. THE GRAYLINE:- The Analects of A Black Disabled Man, The Gray Leopard Cove, Soul Tree Radio In The Raw, and The Batchelor Pad Network on Blogtalkradio.com Disabled Community Activist. Email at garyngray@blackathlete.com


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