Vince Lombardi once said that winning is a habit. If that is the case, the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team is on quite a roll.
With a gold medal at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, a gold medal at the 2009 and 2012 International Paralympic Committee Sled Hockey World Championship, and a silver medal at the same event earlier this year, the United States has been arguably the most successful sled hockey nation in recent years.
It’s a trend the team looks to continue this year. On Wednesday, USA Hockey announced the preliminary roster for the team that will look to defend its gold medal in Sochi, Russia at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.
The team was selected following a two-day tryout camp last week (July 19-20) that included 67 players in Williamsville, N.Y. The roster features 10 forwards, six defensemen and two goaltenders.
“We picked a good team. I think the fact that we have some good experience and some talented young players,” said Jeff Sauer, who is entering his third season as head coach of the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team. “If we get any coaching we might be pretty successful, we’ll just have to wait and see.”
That shouldn’t be a problem. Sauer, who may be somewhat of a newcomer in the world of sled hockey, is considered one of the greatest coaches in the history of college hockey.
During his illustrious 31-year college coaching career Sauer led the Colorado College Tigers and Wisconsin Badgers to 655 wins (seventh all-time) and two national championships with the Badgers.
He has also coached numerous able-bodied U.S. Teams at international competitions and was the head coach of the U.S. squads that competed at the previous three Deaflympics.
Nine players return from the 2010 U.S. squad that captured the gold medal at the 2010 Paralympic Games in Vancouver, and 16 of the 18 players were on the 2012-13 World Championship roster.
That experience, coupled with some talented youngsters, has Sauer excited for the competition to begin.
However, that excitement does not come without a bit of apprehension. Two of the players — Declan Farmer and Brody Roybal — are 15 years old. Despite them being “as skilled as any player on the team,” bringing players that young to an international tournament, as well as getting them to mesh with the rest of the locker room can be an unpredictable situation.
Most of that apprehension was quelled last year, however, when Farmer was first named to the team.
“One of the big concerns a year ago was we selected Declan Farmer as a 15-year old player, and we were very concerned about the locker room situation and the maturity of the team,” Sauer said.
“It was incredible the way the rest of the players took him under their wing and really developed him into a mature athlete at 15-years old. It’s been really fun to watch his progress.”
Sauer added that, based on the way the team looked out for Farmer, he is confident Roybal will be treated in a similar manner.
An added advantage the team has is the presence of four military men on the roster.
Backup goalie Jen Lee is on active duty with the U.S. Army. Defenseman Rico Roman is an Army veteran, while Paul Schaus and Josh Sweeney served in the U.S. Marine Corp.
Sauer expects to lean on the four for their leadership qualities.
“It’s a freshness that a lot of coaches don’t have. The military players we have come with discipline, which is a tremendous asset, especially with this type of a team,” Sauer said.
“They give us great leadership, they know what discipline and commitment is and they really lead the way, whether they’re vocal or not. It’s a real stabilizing force.”
Sauer made it no secret that the team’s goal is to repeat as Paralympic gold medalist this year. He said the team knows its competition and how it needs to get ready to face them again.
At the same time, they can’t be focused on the past, and have to prepare for competing in a foreign country.
“You approach it as every year is a new year; the past is the past and we’ve got to get ready for the future,” Sauer said.
“Whenever you take a team outside of their comfort zone, and by taking them to Russia, a foreign country, the food, the beds, all of the other things that go on, that’s another alternative that a coach has to worry about.
“That’ll be a concern as we get closer to the Paralympics, that’ll be a concern in relation to putting this team together and who can be least effected by their surroundings and just be concer