Steve Cash hit the pillow each night as a kid with visions of pulling a St. Louis Blues sweater over his head and playing against the best hockey players in the world.
The 20-year-old from Overland, Mo., has been living a substantial part of that dream since discovering sled hockey five years ago. It may not be the National Hockey League, but Cash certainly has established himself as one of the top goaltenders in the world.
“A lot of kids growing up, including me, dream of making it to the NHL,” said Cash, who established his roots as a roller hockey goalie.
“Making it to the top level of your sport is always your goal. When I found sled hockey and made Team USA, I found a way to take that dream in another direction.
“Ever since I made this team, it’s become my life. I am so thankful every time I put on that USA jersey. It’s such an honor to represent your country and play for your friends and family at the highest level.”
Cash backstopped Team USA to its first gold medal in a World Championship this spring when he allowed just four goals in five games in Ostrava, Czech Republic.
Cash beat Canada, 2-1, in a shootout, in the semifinals and avenged Team USA’s only defeat of the tournament by blanking Norway, 1-0, in the championship match.
Cash debuted with the U.S. Sled Team as a backup at the 2006 Paralympic Winter Games in Torino, Italy, and became the go-to goalie the following season.
“Steve really gained a lot of confidence at the World Championships,” Team USA coach Ray Maluta said. “He prepared himself well, then he went out and proved just how good he is. Everyone in our locker room will tell you he is the best in the world.
“He has such a great grasp on life. He’s not your typical goalie, because he’s not ‘out there.’ He’s very well-grounded, and he’s very well-rounded.”
"Ever since I made this team, it’s become my life. I am so thankful every time I put on that USA jersey."
— Steve Cash
Doctors diagnosed Cash with osteosarcoma (bone cancer) in his right knee area as an infant. He underwent amputation surgery at age 3.
“I learned to walk with a prosthetic when I was 4, so that’s always been what I’ve considered normal,” Cash said. “It’s not a big deal to me, because it’s something I’ve done my whole life. It’s just something I have to do to compensate.
“So, when people ask me if it’s hard to play roller hockey with a prosthetic, I really don’t know how to answer. That’s the only way I’ve known how to play.”
Cash’s path to goaltending follows a somewhat familiar theme. He’s actually the little brother of the little brother who had to be abused for target practice. Donny Cash, now 30, used to strap magazines and pillows on James Cash, now 25.
“He’d shoot hockey pucks at him as hard as he could,” said Steve Cash, whose third sibling, 21-year-old Mike, played forward on many of Steve’s teams growing up. “I don’t know why, but I always wanted to follow in James’ footsteps.”
Mostly Cash played roller hockey while growing up in suburban St. Louis. When local sled hockey coach Mike Dowling learned about Cash’s prosthetic leg, he asked the 15-year-old to give his sport a shot.
Cash played his first sled hockey tournament in January 2005, received a tryout to a USA Hockey select camp that spring, and his career took off.
“My legs aren’t what they used to be, so it’s harder for me to play roller hockey,” Cash said. “By far, sled hockey is the harder of the two. As a goalie, you’re not only using your hands to move back-and-forth and side-to-side, but you have to use them to stop the puck.
“Your positioning is so much more important and something I have to be working on constantly. If I’m an inch off to the right or the left, they’re going to pick those corners all day. You can only cover so much with your reach, so you almost have to be perfect with your positioning.”
Cash loves to bait shooters into aiming for his strength – his lightning-quick glove hand. He inches his way to the right, exposing an enticing target, before quickly closing the gap.
A sled hockey goalie uses his hands to move around the crease, so the key is to get set quickly so the hands can be used to stop pucks.
“You have to drop part of your coverage in order to move, and that’s where you leave a hole,” said Maluta. “His athletic ability and his quickness are, by far, his biggest assets in closing those holes.”
Away from the ice, Cash loves to play practical jokes, and he doesn’t mind making light of his removable right leg.
“His personality is perfect for his position,” said Team USA general manager Dan Brennan. “His demeanor is calm all the time, and he has the ability to not take himself too seriously. When I first met him three years ago, he’d really get down on himself if he let in a goal. Now, he realizes that the most important puck coming at him is the next one.
“Nobody in our locker room comes more ready to play than Steve Cash. A key ingredient to any team that’s won anything is that your best players are also your best people.”