Some leaders don’t need to provide a vocal presence in the locker room to demand the respect of their teammates. Josh Sweeney, the captain of the 2014-15 U.S. National Sled Hockey Team, is one of them.
After scoring the lone goal in the 1-0 gold-medal win over Russia at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Sweeney was named the captain of this year’s U.S. team. But even though he’s in an elevated position, his leadership style won’t change. As a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, Sweeney served in a leadership capacity. While much more is at stake in the military, Sweeney said the same kind of leadership qualities he embodied then will continue over to the national team he’s captaining.
“I lead the same now in the locker room as I did in the Marines,” Sweeney said. “When I was in the Marine Corps, I didn’t have to say a lot. The guys just knew what I expected. I put those out there at the beginning of the season.”
Sweeney got a first-hand look at this year’s roster during a four-day training camp at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex from Oct. 2-5. As a group, the pace was fast on the first day. Even so, Sweeney saw there’s plenty to work on while acknowledging the effort.
“Initially things were a little rough, but everybody was out there skating hard,” Sweeney said. “In your first practice, you can gauge how hard people are going to skate for the rest of the season. I didn’t see anybody out there taking it easy and not pushing. That’s a really good sign. That means everybody’s working hard and everybody has been working hard off the ice.”
Sweeney’s enjoyed quite the wild ride over the past year. Following the Paralympic gold-medal showing, he won the inaugural Pat Tillman Award for Service at the 2014 ESPYS.
A hockey player growing up, everything changed in October 2009, when, as a sniper in the Marines, he stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. After Sweeney lost both of his legs, his family introduced him to sled hockey, which he credits for saving his life. Now, he’s gone from serving as a leader in the military to leading a U.S. National Team.
“Coming into this sport and being there for my country, playing for this team, and also being there for the guys next to me in the locker room and on the ice, it really helped to fulfill what was taken from me when I was injured,” Sweeney said. “And then being named captain is icing on the cake.”
Helping Sweeney out this year are alternate captains Josh Pauls and Nikko Landeros. Sweeney said both provide a more vocal and outgoing style, which creates some balance in the locker room. While Sweeney lets his play provide the example for his teammates to follow, Pauls and Landeros reiterate the team’s mission and goals verbally. But Pauls added that Team USA is filled with plenty of guys who can step up and lead at any moment.
“We have a lot of leaders. We had 17 leaders [in Sochi] that led in their own way,” Pauls said. “I really think this team will be that way. We’re here to set the standard and let everybody grow into their own.”
Said Sweeney: “Nikko is just a beast. He definitely hits the gym a lot. Josh, on the ice, there’s no other defenseman I’d want to go against. He’s just such a fighter. They’re definitely two individuals that are going to be leading from the front.”
Sweeney, Landeros and Pauls will look to get this year’s group up to speed and into top form for the IPC World Championships, which will be held next April in Buffalo, New York. With Sweeney at the helm, Pauls believes the team is in good hands.
“He’s a ridiculously hard worker on the ice,” Pauls said. “He might not talk in the locker room, but he does all the talking on the ice with his play. There couldn’t have been a better guy to score that game-winning gold medal goal. He was the only choice for captain for our team.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.