For sled hockey veteran Joe Howard, it’s been quite a ride. A member of the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team since 1998, he’s seen it all, from the U.S. Sled Hockey Team’s first Paralympic appearance in 1998 to the gold-medal win in 2002 and a bronze in 2006. But for Howard, the 2010 Paralympic sled team is something new.
Howard is now the senior statesman on a much more organized squad that has recently dominated the world with wins at the 2009 International Paralympic Committee Ice Sledge Hockey World Championship, the World Sledge Hockey Challenge and the Japan Para Ice Sledge Hockey Championships.
He chalks much of that up to what has transpired since USA Hockey took over the program shortly after the 2006 Paralympic Winter Games. The end result has been better organization and an improved budget for the team’s travel and training.
“[In the] ’98 Nagano Games, we pretty much paid our way around the world,” said the 43-year-old Kingston, Mass., native. “The support from USA Hockey and U.S. Paralympics makes a big difference in how we train and how we prepare ourselves as a team.”
It all starts from the top down with dynamic new leadership in the form of Head Coach Ray Maluta, Assistant Coach Bill Corbo Jr. and General Manager J.J. O’Connor. They have brought a new attitude to the team, one which demands more of each player on and off the ice.
“I have to credit the coaching staff,” said Team Leader and Director of Player Personnel Dan Brennan of the recent international success. “I think that the players understand now that this is a professionally run team and there are expectations of them to succeed.”
The coaching staff requires each player to be more accountable for his own physical condition, encouraging more off-ice training at home between practices.
“We were together once every month, and then they were home for three weeks and they would not be doing any off-ice work at home,” Maluta said of players’ old habits. “Every time we got together for either an event or training session we would be starting over.”
But, according to Brennan, the team’s dedication to off-ice training has improved greatly as many players now use personal trainers to stay in shape year-round and create what Maluta calls a “very fast, energetic, aggressive hockey team.”
Along with the increased dedication off the ice, Howard has seen a positive change in team dynamic. What Howard described as formerly a one- or two-man show for Team USA has become a team game with this squad.
“I think everybody has matured, and I think what the coaching staff’s expectations are of us really makes us better,” Howard said, noting an increased trust between teammates. “[We want] to prove to each other that we are the best team in the world.”
The strength of the team’s bond has become apparent everywhere, not just on the ice.
“When we took over, the players couldn’t wait to leave the rink. Now we have to prod them along so we can get out of there,” Maluta said. “It’s where they want to spend a lot of time because they’re a big family now.”
However, some long-time members of that hockey family have departed, leaving younger members to carry on their proud tradition. Paralympic veterans Kip St. Germaine, Mike Hallman and Lonnie Hannah were cut from the final 2010 roster, a tough but necessary choice.
“Being that we are a fast team, we wanted to maintain that,” Maluta said. “The players that we kept … were more versatile in playing different positions and that was probably the deciding factor.”
That decision has allowed a new generation of sled hockey players to take the Paralympic ice, including the team’s latest addition, Nikko Landeros, who joined the team in July.
“I’m a little nervous, but I’m more really excited,” said the Berthoud, Colo., native. “I’ve heard a lot of cool things about the Paralympics and I’m really excited I get to go out with the team and bring back the gold.”
Along with Landeros and Howard on the 15-man roster are eight veterans of the 2006 Paralympic Winter Games.
“A lot of these guys went to Torino, Italy, and that makes a big difference in that they know how to prepare for it now,” Howard said.
Even with teammates new to the Games, defenseman Taylor Chace isn’t worried about their ability to prepare for the tournament.
“Our average age is 23,” said the 23-year-old native of Hampton Falls, N.H. “But we’ve all been through world championships and different situations where you really have to focus so you can finish and win the game.”
Backing up the team is 20-year-old goaltender Steve Cash, who is looking for his first Paralympic action after serving as a backup in 2006.
“He’s probably the top goalie in the world right now,” Howard said of Cash who boasted seven shutouts in 2009 alone. “We’re all kind of following his lead and we know that he’s going to keep us in every game and give us the chance to win.”
Regardless of any resistance from international powerhouses Canada and Norway, coach Maluta believes his squad will be in that gold-medal game.
“Our team goal over the last two years has been to play in every gold-medal game going into a tournament,” Maluta said. “We’ve accomplished that, and that is our goal going into Vancouver.”
But Howard and Chace are confident that this team has what it takes to bring home the gold.
“As long as we stick together and support each other,” Chace said, “we’ll do well and take home first place. We really want it.”