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Team USA Star Josh Sweeney Brings Sled Hockey Out West

By Dan Hickling - Special to USAHockey.com, 07/27/15, 3:00PM MDT

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Sweeney has received help from USA Hockey, the NHLPA and the Portland Winterhawks

Who, just who, could say no to Josh Sweeney?

Nobody. That’s who.

You can’t say no to such a compelling personality as Sweeney, a war hero and sled hockey champion who helped Team USA win Paralympic gold in 2014 in Sochi, Russia, and more recently a world championship this past May in Buffalo, New York.

So when the decorated former Marine sergeant (now retired) shows up at your door to enlist your help in establishing a sled hockey team in his adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon, there’s only one thing you can say.

Yes.

And it’s with the help of USA Hockey, Labatt Blue, the Portland Winterhawks, the National Hockey League Players Association and others that Sweeney is well on his way to icing such a team, one he hopes will compete in a yet to be formed Western U.S. sled hockey loop.

Sweeney, not surprisingly, is tackling this mission as any good sergeant would, with Marine-like efficiency.

“I felt like Portland was important if we were to get a Western sled hockey league going,” said Sweeney, who relocated last year from San Antonio to Portland, where his wife, Amber, has family.

“Since I was going to be moving up here anyway, I didn’t feel it would be right to play for a team that wasn’t where I lived. So I decided to get a team going.”

Sled hockey teams have been formed throughout the West Coast, from Alaska to Southern California and out to the Rockies. Portland has been a little behind the curve, having previously hosted the occasional sled hockey clinic, including one that Sweeney had participated in even before making the move north.

All that began to change when Sweeney hit town for good.

The first call went to Kelly Hayes, who serves as a USA Hockey representative for Oregon.

“I said, ‘I’d like to start a team in Portland.’” Sweeney said. “‘Was there something already going?’

“She said, ‘No. We [USA Hockey] have had the clinics in Portland before, but nothing really came of it because we didn’t have anybody driving it.’”

The next stop on his call list were the Winterhawks, a perennial major junior hockey power, whose reach into the Portland grassroots extends into youth and high school hockey.

Sled hockey hadn’t previously been part of the Hawks’ mission, but after hearing what Sweeney had to say, they quickly jumped aboard.

“As soon as I told them I was looking to start the program, they were super excited,” he said. “They definitely wanted to be a part of it and [said] that they were ready to support in any way they could.”

And the Hawks had plenty of support to lend.

“They added sled hockey as a section under their already established non-profit corporation [WAHA, as in Winterhawks Amateur Hockey Association],” Sweeney said. “That was huge. They had the facilities. They had the name.”

And they had the ability to cut through all that nettlesome legal red tape, the sort that can choke the life out of any worthy endeavor.

Thus the WAHA Sled Hockey Team was officially born.

“I told them I don’t know anything about anything,” Sweeney said, “but I know sled hockey. It was a huge weight off my shoulders, knowing they had that covered. I was just able to focus on [hockey].”

It was through the Winterhawks that Sweeney came upon NHLer and Portland native Paul Gaustad, a former Winterhawk now playing for the Nashville Predators.

Gaustad steered Sweeney toward the NHLPA and its Goals & Dreams program, which has doled out some $22 million to grassroots hockey and related causes since 1999.

Almost instantly, Sweeney found himself supplied with all sorts of hockey gear: helmets, pads, sticks and … sleds.

“Everything we would need to put 15 players on the ice,” Sweeney said.

Recruiting players to fill those sleds is the next task. Sweeney hopes to jump-start that process with a free “come try sled hockey” event on August 23 at Winterhawks Skating Center.

“We [want to] slowly build our base of players who come out consistently,” he said. “We’re excited.”

The serious on-ice work will come in October, when the players will begin practicing at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where the Winterhawks play home games.

Meanwhile, Sweeney’s mission continues.

More meetings, more phone calls, more people to reach with the sled hockey gospel.

But when it’s Josh Sweeney on the line, you’re darned well going to answer.

“My role is basically as the face,” he said. “I will roll around and talk to different programs. The community has been great. I have had so much support from everybody I talk to. I think that it’s a huge part of building a team. Having a community behind you. It’s an ongoing process, and without that support it’s really hard to do.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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