The hoots and hollers heard echoing through the corridors shattered what was supposed to be quiet time in the Olympic Village.
Rather than resting up for their semifinal showdown with Norway, members of the U.S. Sled Hockey Team were glued to their TV sets, watching Japan upset their heavily favored Canadian counterparts.
The shouts signaled that there would be no Olympic threepeat in Vancouver.
The table was set for the Americans to win their second Paralympic gold medal. Standing in their way, first and foremost, was an experienced Norway team with a number of holdovers from the squad that lost to the U.S. in a gold-medal shootout in 2002.
It didn’t take long after the puck dropped that U.S. Head Coach Ray Maluta knew that his team had left something back at the Village. Once accurate passes missed their mark. Speedy U.S. forwards were beaten to loose pucks. Mental and physical errors that weren’t there in the first three games of the tournament were suddenly creeping into their play.
“I believe most of us expected to be playing Canada, and it threw a wrench into all of our mental plans and our preparation,” said team captain Andy Yohe. “I think that’s part of why we came out and didn’t have the best period.”
Maluta knew that something needed to be done, and quickly. Too many times over the course of his playing and coaching career he had seen overmatched teams stick around before a lucky bounce or bad break paved the way to a monumental upset.
“Going into the tournament we knew that the only team that could beat us was us, if we didn’t play well. The first period against Norway was our worst period of the tournament,” said Maluta, whose typical teddy bear demeanor was replaced by the growl of a grizzly during a between periods pep talk that blistered paint on the locker room walls.
“They had this attitude of looking past the semifinal game and walking into a gold-medal game and taking home a gold medal. Needless to say we had a little attitude adjustment between the first and second period.”
There are defining moments in every championship campaign. For the U.S. Sled Hockey Team, that moment came at the 8:48 mark of the second period against Norway.
Spurred on by a relentless forecheck from Josh Pauls, the youngest player on the team, Greg Shaw picked up a loose puck along the left boards, cutting in alone on veteran goalie Roger Johansen, who came out to challenge the shooter. Shaw made a quick cut to his right and was staring at the open net.
“When Greg finished that beautiful goal it really deflated Norway. They knew at that point in time that it was over,” Maluta said. “It was a great confidence and energy boost that we needed and deflation for them.”
Adding to Norway’s deflation was the realization that any comeback would have to come against a staunch U.S. defense backstopped by arguably the best sled hockey goaltender in world, Steve Cash, who didn’t surrender a single goal in the five tournament games.
“We all know that we have the best sled hockey goalie in the world so that took a lot of pressure off of us,” said Yohe, who made the seamless transition from forward to defense for the tournament.
“We were able to outskate everybody and beat other teams to the puck. We were forechecking harder than anybody, and when we lost control of the puck we were backchecking harder than anybody else.
So it was real tough for anyone to get a breakaway or even set up in our zone because we were all over them.”
Insurance goals by Alex Salamone and veteran Joe Howard ensured that the U.S. would be play Japan for the gold medal.
Following suit of 2002, where the U.S. Men’s and Women’s teams lost to Canada in the gold-medal game, the U.S. Sled Team would go on to take home the gold after a tough 2-0 victory over Japan.
The plan put into place more than two years ago by the U.S. brain trust, which included Maluta, assistant coach Bill Corbo, team leader Dan Brennan and general manager J.J. O’Connor, had paid off.
The U.S. squad was the best-conditioned and most aggressive team in the field. More than that, what was once a group of individuals who couldn’t wait to leave their locker room and teammates behind had formed a tight bond that allowed them to call themselves brothers in the locker room and on the ice, and now be called Paralympic champions.
“When we started this process we thought this team would be ready for 2014, but as time went on, we started to really believe that we could do it [in Vancouver],” Brennan said.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been happier for a group of players than these guys. I cringe every time I hear the word disabled to describe these guys. This is the most able-bodied group of hockey players I’ve ever been around.”
With a team that averages 23.8 in age, and looks to get younger in the coming years, future competition has plenty to fret.
“The scariest part is we have a young team in age, but more than that we’re really young in terms of hockey experience,” Maluta said.
“Every time we go out on the ice we continue to improve and become less robotic and more natural. And that’s scary.”