U.S. National Sled Hockey Team goaltender Steve Cash will be right at home Thursday through Sunday when the 10th annual USA Hockey Sled Classic, presented by the NHL, is played in St. Louis at the Centene Community Ice Center.
The St. Louis native and three-time Paralympic gold medalist is one of 10 members of the national team, and one of eight who helped the U.S. capture its fourth gold medal at the World Para Ice Hockey Championships, who will be playing in the event.
The USA Hockey Sled Classic annually brings together sled hockey teams associated with NHL clubs. The Nashville Predators have four teams entered and there are a total of 31 teams representing 19 NHL clubs.
Fans are invited to attend all games, free of charge. Friday and Saturday are the busiest days in terms of scheduled games, and fans attending Friday will also have a chance to see the Stanley Cup, which will be on display.
The Chicago Blackhawks, who hosted the 2018-19 Sled Classic, are the defending Tier I Division champion after defeating the Colorado Avalanche in last year’s event.
On the day before the tournament opener, Cash, a St. Louis native, took time to discuss his excitement for the event.
USA Hockey: What do you enjoy most about the Sled Classic?
Steve Cash: The Classic is something that is very unique when compared to any other tournament that we have in the sport. First and foremost, it shows how far the sport has come. Especially since its inception and since I first started, you see NHL clubs getting involved and expressing their interest in the sport. Along with that, you get to see some of the top competition, not only nationwide, but you get to see teams from Canada coming in and showcasing their talent.
It’s something that you don’t see anywhere else in the sport. Each and every year, I’m fortunate enough to see it grow. This year, we have more than 30 teams and I think that trumps past years. It expresses the overall interest that has grown exponentially throughout the years within the sport.
USAH: As a “club team” event fitting in with your busy schedule with the national team, how important is it for you and other national team players to remain involved in an event like the Sled Classic?
SC: I think it’s crucial for the growth of the sport, whether it’s me being involved, or any national team guy that has come up through the ranks. It’s great to have them out there getting some face with kids and other people that don’t get to see them play, and to even chat with them off the ice. We consider it a very close-knit community. To have national team guys coming in and playing with their respective teams, or sometimes finding teams to hop on, not only does it help grow the sport for people that are either new to it or don’t necessarily get the chance to see everyone, but I think it also represents that we’re all in it together.
It really helps level the playing field when you have a handful of national team guys competing against each other. We’re able to elevate our game when we compete against each other, but at the same time, it helps other guys really see the pace of it when you get to that level. I think it helps everybody all around.
USAH: What does having the Sled Classic in your neighborhood, in St. Louis, mean for you?
SC: It’s really an honor to have it here in St. Louis. We haven’t had a tournament of this magnitude here yet. I’m happy about it because it shows that St. Louis has been on the map for hockey for quite some time. Maybe there are folks out there who don’t know that yet, but to have a premier hockey tournament coming to my hometown, I couldn’t be more proud to see where our city has come within the sport.
It’s not just from a player standpoint. You look at all the hands that are involved — all the volunteers, the organizing committee, the different sponsors — and it’s really been a growing process for people who haven’t been involved before. To be able to host a tournament like this, obviously we want to make it one of the best ones yet. At the same time, we’re keeping in the back of our minds that it just shows what kind of city we are, not just in other sports like baseball and football, in the past, but now hockey is becoming a premier sport within the community. To have it at such an immaculate facility as the Centene Community Ice Center, you can’t help but feel blessed.
It’s great to see the Blues also getting involved and showing their commitment to putting on a really good tournament. I have no doubt in my mind that it’s going to be an enjoyable one for everyone involved.
USAH: You mentioned the St. Louis Blues. How important is support of the NHL as a whole to the overall growth of sled hockey around the country?
SC: The Blues have been super supportive of the sled team here in St. Louis for a number of years. I need more than two hands to count the number of times they’ve invited me out to a game and the number of times they’ve reached out and congratulated the team on our successes.
Just being a part of something like that, it makes you feel like you’re part of a bigger picture than just what you do yourself. To have their support — I don’t think there are many teams that can say there is such a heavy involvement from not just the players, but also the higher ups and the executives. I’m honored and humbled to say that I’ve suited up in the locker room with [Blues owner] Tom Stillman and many others who are part of the organization. For me, I feel like it’s a surreal moment, every time they get involved.
To have that kind of attachment to such a great hockey club, and a classy hockey club at that, it’s a dream come true, for sure.
USAH: As a three-time Paralympic gold medalist, what’s it like to play in an event like this? You’re packed with players from all over the country, with all sorts of different experience and skill levels. And, what’s it like playing against some of your national team teammates that you mentioned earlier? There have to be some bragging rights on the line.
SC: It’s nerve-wracking any time I have to go against my own teammates, for a number of reasons. I’ve been around long enough in a club environment, along with the national team, that I know I’m going to have to be at the top of my game to keep my team in it.
To have such a great, skilled player like Josh Pauls on my team, makes it a lot easier. He’s such a great teammate to have. Honestly, I don’t what I would do if I had to play against him on any platform or any stage of the game. I’m just glad he’s on my team on both ends of the spectrum.
Each and every year, we not only see the same players coming back, but we see new players coming in. I think that’s very promising for the sport. Coming to a tournament like this, I know it’s not always easy to travel and lug your hockey bags and sleds around. Everyone that’s involved in the sport understands the dedication and the commitment that it takes.
It’s an everybody-in kind of mentality. Even though we’re all competing against each other at the club level, the ultimate goal is to make each other better. It is not about winning as much as it is about having that respect for each other and pushing each other to get better. Whether it’s a guy who’s just starting out on the club team or a guy that I’ve been teammates with on the national team for many years, we’re still trying to make each other better and we’re still trying to grow the game.
At the end of the day, I think having tournaments like this does just that.
USAH: Can you tell us about your team. Who are you playing with and how many of them are guys you have been playing with through the years?
SC: Here we have the DASA Blues. DASA is the Disabled Athlete Sports Association. I’ve been on this team since 2004 when I first started in the sport.
We have a really good mix of experience and newer players within the system. We’re happy to say that we can now field a youth team as well as a B team or a lower-tiered team with new players coming in. Each time we practice, it’s more than just my team on the ice. It’s at least 15-20 other players that are also on the ice practicing. I think that speaks volumes to how far our city has come in the sport of hockey and the growth we’ve been able to make.
On my team specifically, as I mentioned, we have Josh Pauls, the captain of the U.S. National Sled Team. If you watch him play, you know that he’s a talent within the sport. We also have Chris McCoy, who this year made the development team. He’s a player who is up and coming and one of the defensemen on the team. I think he’s hoping to really showcase his talent at this level where I think he might not really have gotten a chance to before. We also have Katie Ladlie, who is on the women’s national development team. She’s been on there for a few years now. She’s one of our forwards who is a very dependable player. She’s always a team-first mentality. It’s always great to have someone like that on your team. Our captain is Jason Malady. He started in the sport basically on the same day that I did. He’s a guy who is great to have on the team. He’s going to provide that leadership that you might not otherwise have. He’s going to fill in the gaps that maybe Josh, Chris, Katie or I don’t provide.
I think we have a really good mix of experienced players, but also ones that have that competitive drive to get better. We’ve been at the top tier for a number of years now. Each and every time we get out there, we’re playing for each other. We’re also playing for that Blues note that’s on the front of our jerseys.
USAH: Is it safe to say there will be a fair share of Steve Cash fans in attendance this weekend?
SC: I’m hoping. I’m hoping there’s a fair share of Blues fans in general that come out to support us. I always like when people come out to support us. The big takeaway is how it’s so similar to stand-up hockey. People who haven’t seen it before might come out to watch me play, but then they get a grasp of the sport as a whole and the physicality and fast pace to it. They see how driven we are as adaptive athletes to show more of our abilities rather than our disabilities.
I think they come away with a big appreciation for what we can do. I’m sure there will be plenty of people who I’ve been pulling for to come out and support me, but I think they’ll really enjoy the game as a whole when they come out and watch.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.