AMHERST, N.Y. – Rico Roman has skated a long way in his relatively brief hockey journey.
In four short years, the San Antonio resident has picked up the fine points of the game, enough of them in fact to make him an invaluable part of the USA Hockey Sled Hockey team.
And that's not all that Roman, a retired US Army staff sergeant who lost his left leg while serving in Iraq, has absorbed about the game.
He's also picked up a fair chunk of hockey lingo.
Take the term “saucer pass”. (Think of a crisp, flat, cross-ice dish from tape-to-tape.)
“I said 'what's that?',” said Roman, during last week's USA Hockey Paralympic team training camp at Northtown Center. “'You talking about salsa? Instead of putting ketchup on your burger?'”
Nowadays, Roman is fluent in two puck languages. Forward and defense.
Roman and fellow USA Paralympic team member Josh Pauls have been tabbed by head coach Jeff Sauer to play both positions, giving the team great versatility as it prepares for the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
“The big thing,” said Sauer, “is that we've got 18 players here. We can only dress 15 in the Paralympics. We've got four solid defensemen, but they're the ones who tend to take the most penalties. So by mixing it up (with Roman and Pauls), I have a lot of options.”
Playing at a world-class level at one position is challenge enough. Try mastering two.
“I came in not knowing the game at all,” said Roman, who plays on the team's “All Military” forward line with retired Marines Paul Schaus and Josh Sweeney, “so my first couple of seasons was just learning the game. Watching hockey, asking questions, and getting my speed up to par.”
Introduced to the sport in 2009 through the Army's “Operation Comfort” program, Roman's baptism on defense came two years later out of a dire shortage of blue liners.
“We needed another defenseman,” said Sauer, “and I asked Rico to go back there. Typical military guy (that he is) he said, 'Sure. Whatever you want.' That was my reasoning there, and it worked out really well. Up front, his production for us is going to give us a power line, so to speak.”
Said Roman, “Now that I know both roles, I know that as a forward, if you just skate up with your back to your defenseman, he can't give you a good pass. So you leave your defenseman to hang, to get pounded as well. So now I really know both roles.”
Pauls, a double amputee as an infant, was, at 17, the youngest member of the USA's gold medal-winning squad in the 2010 Vancouver games.
When Sauer took over the team a year later, he quickly saw that Pauls was up to handling both jobs if needed.
“Josh Pauls is a kid who wants to play,” Sauer said. “He's got great individual skill. He can play forward, but he's quick enough that if he gets beat, he can get back to help defensively. He's not as physical, defensively as a defenseman. But his skill overrides that.”
Pauls, who majors in sports management at Lindenwood University, said moving seamlessly between forward and defense is as demanding mentally as it is physically.
“As a defenseman,” he said, “you see the ice a whole lot more than a forward would. A forward is going and going, and doesn't have time to react. As a defenseman, it's more reaction. When I'm playing a forward, I know what I have to do to help the defenseman make the pass up.
“It improves your hockey sense tremendously. Little things like curling towards the puck as a forward, or stopping and posting up on the wall. It helps each of us succeed.”
Roman, ever the good soldier, said he just wants to contribute to the cause any way he can. Just get him on the ice and he's ready to go.
“I don't want to be just a bench player,” he said. “I want to be an impact player on the team. If the team needs someone to do something, I want to be that guy.”
Defenseman Andy Yohe will serve as team captain of the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team, Coach Sauer announced on Saturday. Additionally, Taylor Chace and Josh Sweeney were tabbed alternate captains.
Yohe was also the captain for the 2010 U.S. Paralympic Team that won gold in Vancouver, B.C. Chace and Sweeney wore A’s for the U.S. during the 2012-13 campaign.
Six Months to Sochi
Though its just September, the Team USA coaching staff was quick to point out that the five practices held in suburban Buffalo were an important jumping off point. Head Coach Jeff Sauer expects to build on each practice, spending little time on review when the team convenes each month.
Overall, the 18-man squad showed up in good physical and mental shape and ready to work. Conditioning tests were part of the regimen – players were timed on full laps, blue line to red line bursts and stop-start, change-of-direction drills. Additionally, the importance of off-ice training, including eating properly and resting when necessary, was discussed.
The team trains in Madison, Wis. (Oct. 3-6) and St. Louis, Mo. (Nov. 7-10) before its first game action of the season in early December at the 2013 World Sledge Hockey Challenge in Toronto, Ont.
A highly-productive offensive trio last year, Declan Farmer, Greg Shaw and Josh Pauls donned their familiar green jerseys in Bufalo. Pauls led the team with 20 points (9-11) in 2012-13, while Farmer posted an 8-11—19 line as a rookie. Shaw contributed three goals and 10 assists.
An all-military line of Paul Schaus (Marines), Josh Sweeney (Marines) and Rico Roman (Army) sported navy blue. All three players are in line to play in their first Paralympic Games.
The red line, made up of Adam Page, Taylor Lipsett and Alexi Salamone, boasts three Paralympic gold medals and two Paralympic bronze medals.
Dan McCoy, Kevin McKee and Brody Roybal made up the gray line. Each player is on the cusp of competing in his first Paralympic Games.
Defensively, two-time Paralympian Andy Yohe was paired with Nikko Landeros, who was a Paralympian in 2010. Taylor Chace, a two-time Paralympian and the best defenseman at the 2010 Paralympics, skated with Tyler Carron, who is ready for his first Paralympics.
Early Bragging Rights
After the final practice of every training camp or tournament the goalies and skaters face each other in a shootout showdown. If a shooter fails to score he’s eliminated. If the final shooter is stopped, the goaltender wins. On Saturday, Goalie Jen Lee stopped Declan Farmer to claim the prize – a cheesehead-inspired yellow football brought from Wisconsin by Coach Sauer (look for a photo in the gallery).