Bringing in the Reinforcements

Wounded Warriors Bring Heart And Soul As U.S. Sled Program Wins Back-To-Back World Titles

An infusion of new talent, such as Rico Roman, above, and Josh Sweeney, along with the veteran leadership of Jimmy Connelly,An infusion of new talent, such as Rico Roman, above, and Josh Sweeney, along with the veteran leadership of Jimmy Connelly,

Forwards Rico Roman and Josh Sweeney were held off the scoresheet in all five games of the 2012 International Paralympic Committee Sledge Hockey World Championship.

But the energy and work ethic they brought to the table in their first trip overseas with the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team was vital to the club returning from Hamar, Norway with its second straight gold medal.

“Every team needs those energy guys who go out there and give everything they have every shift,” said Team USA goaltender Steve Cash. “They might not score the big goals, but they make the little plays that eventually lead to the big plays.”

Rewind two years to the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Roman and Sweeney had just met after both suffered injuries while serving in the U.S. military. Sweeney, a corporal in the Marine Corps, became a double amputee in Afghanistan in 2009, while Roman, an Army staff sergeant, lost his left leg in Iraq in 2007 – both of which were caused by improvised explosive devices.

Shortly after their meeting, Roman told Sweeney of his intentions to try sled hockey at a local camp.

As a former able-bodied hockey player at Ironwood High School in Phoenix, Sweeney was also interested in giving the sport a shot.

Since then, the two have skated together as teammates for the San Antonio Rampage and developed a strong bond.

“We really relate to each other well because we were both infantry and we were both wounded while overseas,” Sweeney said. “We have the same mentality and the same drive to succeed in something. That’s just how we’re wired.”

For wounded warriors such as Roman and Sweeney, being involved in competitive sports plays a major role in their recovery, both physically and emotionally.

“Adaptive sports and reconditioning play a critical role in allowing our wounded, ill and injured soldiers to achieve their physical goals and build the confidence essential for success in the next phase of their lives,” said Brig. Gen. Darryl Williams, commander of the Warrior Transition Command.

And for programs like the U.S. Sled Hockey Team, adding character people with the drive and discipline that comes with being a member of the Armed Forces can only make the defending Paralympic champions even stronger in the future.

Roman was called up to the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team last year, and Sweeney wasn’t far behind.

He made his Team USA debut this season.

But the trip to Norway for the World Championship didn’t start the way the duo had hoped.

All 17 players dressed for warm-ups prior to the first game of the tournament against Estonia.

However, per IPC rules, each team was only permitted to dress 15 players, and as two of the newest players on the team, Roman and Sweeney were selected as scratches.

“We were definitely disappointed to be sitting in the stands for that first game,” said Roman, who watched Team USA sneak by Estonia, 2-1 in a shootout. “But we knew we weren’t going to hold anything back in the next game.”

Roman, a football player and wrestler at Alpha High School in Gresham, Ore., made his presence felt immediately when he was reinserted in the lineup against the Czech Republic. On his first shift, he dealt a big open-ice check that set the tempo and fired up the U.S. bench.

Team USA pressed hard offensively all game, outshooting the Czechs, 16-9, but was unable to solve netminder Michal Vapenka and suffered a disappointing, 2-1, shootout loss.

After a team meeting called by head coach Jeff Sauer to refocus his group following the loss, the U.S. came out of the gates and steamrolled Japan, 5-0, to set up a meeting with Canada in the semifinals.

Often matched up against Canada’s top offensive line, Roman and Sweeney played shut-down defense and were an instrumental part of the penalty kill that held Canada 0-for-4 on the night en route to a 2-1 victory.

Taylor Lipsett and Alex Salamone makes the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team a force to be reckoned with heading into the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.Taylor Lipsett and Alex Salamone makes the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team a force to be reckoned with heading into the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

“Our game against Canada was one of the best games we’ve played all year,” said Sauer. “A lot of that came from Rico and Josh. They made something happen on every shift.”

The team’s veterans came through in the gold-medal game against Korea. Taylor Lipsett, a nine-year veteran of the team, tallied three goals and an assist, while Cash, who has been on the team for seven seasons, made eight saves in a 5-1 win.

But again it was the team’s military veterans who had a big impact and helped the team to the gold.

“Josh and I worked really hard off the ice and it paid off this year,” Roman said. “We were able to bring that extra energy to the team in Norway. It was contagious.”



Alex DiFilippo is the 2011-12 Brian Fishman Intern.


Photos Courtesy Of Anita Hector




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