With the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 officially one year away, the United States – two-time defending gold medalists in the event – finds itself in an unexpected period of transition.
The 2016-17 season started with a sense of familiarity as Team USA went a perfect 5-0 to claim the World Sled Hockey Challenge in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island last December. The title was Team USA’s third straight in the event and sixth straight international championship since capturing the gold medal at the Paralympic Winter Games Sochi 2014.
The title, however, proved to be the final one for head coach Jeff Sauer, who passed away on Feb. 2 at the age of 73.
Sauer, second from left, led Team USA to eight international titles
Three weeks after Sauer’s passing, the team reconvened in Indian Trail, North Carolina, for a four-day training camp. The night of arrival, front office personnel, coaches and players gathered, ate pizza, and spoke of tributes and honors to the coach who molded the program into an international power.
“The players really appreciated that,” said Dan Brennan, general manager of the 2016-17 U.S. National Sled Hockey Team and director of sled hockey for USA Hockey.
The next morning, Team USA hit the ice as “a celebration of life.” With the 2017 International Paralympic Committee Sled Hockey World Championship a month away, the national program is moving on “in his honor.”
The world championship, which will take place in Gangneung, South Korea, April 11-20, is doubling as a test event for the Paralympic Winter Games and will see the top five teams automatically qualify for PyeongChang 2018. Team USA, which won the 2015 event in Buffalo, New York, will enter the tournament with a new head coach for the first time in seven seasons.
Now serving as head coach is Guy Gosselin, who worked alongside Sauer as an assistant coach from 2011-15. As an assistant, Gosselin helped guide Team USA to gold medals at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and the 2012 IPC Sled Hockey World Championship in Hamar, Norway, as well as a silver medal at the 2013 IPC Sled Hockey World Championship in Goyang, South Korea.
Despite his familiarity with the team, Gosselin will undoubtedly count on the club’s veteran core for leadership as he meshes his system into the program’s on-ice strategy. Most notable among them is veteran goaltender Steve Cash, who saw players rally around the situation at the February camp.
“Everyone was ready from Day 1,” Cash said of the recent practices.
Head Coach Guy Gosselin (right) with General Manager Dan Brennan
Having completed one camp with new head coach Gosselin, Cash is looking forward to the team assembling in Santa Barbara, California on March 23-26 for its final camp before the world championship gets underway.
“It will be an opportunity for everyone to develop chemistry,” said Cash, who was elected by his peers as the U.S. flag bearer for the Closing Ceremony of Sochi 2014. “I think we are looking pretty good."
And if anyone has an expert eye for how Team USA looks, it’s him.
Cash has backstopped Team USA to back-to-back Paralympic gold medals
During his decorated 12 campaigns with the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team, Cash has compiled two Paralympic gold medals and a bronze to go along with three world championships. He said he plans to remain with the program until at least the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games.
When retirement was mentioned, Cash said, “The mystery remains. I will see how I feel in March 2018."
While the focus remains on the world championship in April, Cash said the loss of coach Sauer will see the team rely heavily on its leadership in the locker room, shared in part by forward Adam Page and defensemen Nikko Landeros, Josh Pauls and Andy Yohe. Like Cash, all four skaters played critical roles in helping Team USA become the first nation to win back-to-back sled hockey gold medals in the Paralympic Winter Games with victories in 2010 and 2014.
Cash also expects the team’s two teenage rookies, Jack Wallace and Noah Grove, to lean on the veterans’ experience. Wallace is expected to add offensive depth whereas Grove aims to emerge as a grinding, shutdown player.
“The big part is the [younger] talent is getting better and better,” Cash said. “[Wallace and Grove] are only going to get better.”
With just one year to go until the 2018 Paralympic Games, Cash is confident this period of transition will not affect Team USA’s approach at a third-straight Paralympic gold medal.
“This is a good group,” Cash said.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.