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Sledge Hockey Challenge a Paralympic Litmus Test

By Dan Hickling - Special to USAHockey.com, 11/29/13, 10:15AM MST

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Last year, a pinnacle. This year, a launching pad.

For three years out of every four, the World Sledge Hockey Challenge serves as a de facto world championship.

Not this year.

Not with 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, just around the corner.

This year the weeklong Sledge Hockey Challenge, which gets under way Dec. 1 in Toronto, will serve as a Paralympics tune-up for the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team, which captured last year's Challenge title in Calgary, and will defend its 2010 Paralympic gold medal in Sochi.

“We don't need to be the best team in the world this weekend,” U.S. coach Jeff Sauer said. “But we want to be the best team in the world [in Sochi], and that's what we're building on, starting this week.”

Team USA will join sled squads from Canada, Russia, and Korea in preliminary round play at the MasterCard Centre, with the semifinals to be held Dec. 5. The championship game will then be Dec. 7 at 5 p.m. EST.

The World Sledge Hockey Challenge will be Team USA's first competition since the selection camp in July, and after four months of pounding on each other, the opportunity to vie against players other than themselves is a welcome one.

“The big thing,” said Sauer, “is to send a message that we're ready to go. Winning and losing is always important. There are a lot of things on the line.”

Solidifying the final roster is among the items at stake. Sauer and his staff must make a cut from the current 18-man roster by Jan. 1, 2014. That is easier said that done given the Americans’ talented roster that includes seven veterans from the 2010 Paralympic gold-medal team. Among those returning is defenseman Andy Yohe, a two-time Paralympian who came out retirement and has since been named team captain for the second consecutive Winter Games.

The competition from within the U.S. squad is as spirited as it is from outside, Sauer said.

“We've got the best depth that we've ever had in our program,” he said. “We've got people competing for positions. I know some of the other countries don't have the depth that we have. But that depth and experience has to perform. The chemistry is very important. It always is. But we're very pleased with that as well.”

Sauer said that while his team will have to focus on its own strengths during the Sledge Hockey Challenge, it would be foolish to take the other contenders lightly.

“I'm concerned about Russia because they are the host country, and they've come a long way in a short time,” he said. “I'm looking forward to seeing just how far they have come. We'll know a lot more Sunday afternoon after we play them.”

The Dec. 4 matchup with Canada will likely be the strongest test of the tournament. Sauer said it could be a litmus test of sorts.

“I'm not going to do anything special against them,” he said. “You get more from an information standpoint, and not so much by cueing in on making sure we win the games. I want to find out who matches up against who, who our better players are against some of their guys.

“Those types of things are not only a learning situation for the players, but for the coaching staff in preparation for the actual [Paralympic] games. When the medal is on the line.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

Team USA World Sledge Hockey Challenge Schedule

Date  Opponent   Result
Dec. 1 Russia W, 2-1
Dec. 2 Korea W, 5-0
Dec. 4 Canada L, 1-4
Dec. 5 Russia
(Semifinals)
W, 4-1
Dec. 7 Canada
(Championship Game)
L, 1-3

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Even with almost 50 years of involvement in hockey, you can’t plan for the current state of the world and the impact coronavirus has had on our game. I think it is safe to say that nothing prepares you for the changes that have taken place in our daily lives and the uncertainty of when things might return to normal. Or in this case, what will become the new “normal.”

Our expertise is hockey, so what we’ll address in this piece: the impact of the global pandemic on our game and how likely it will affect our game in the immediate future. 

USA Hockey continues to post information on COVID-19 on the main website. These updates keep our membership informed of specific programs and the changing safety recommendations that will be in place when hockey returns. Be sure to check back regularly for updates and other hockey information.

On the officiating front, much of what we are able to do from a program standpoint is connected to player events like national tournaments and player development camps. As you know, the national tournaments (along with the March, April and May IIHF World Championship events) were cancelled. The Officiating Program then canceled our two instructor training programs that were planned for late April and early May in Lake Placid, N.Y., and Colorado Springs, Colo. 

At this time, details for any potential summer development camps are still being determined. On the player side, several camps we are connected to were cancelled, and the few camps that are still in planning have been dramatically downsized. The Officiating Program continues to monitor the decisions made for players and will take advantage of any opportunity we have to salvage our summer camp program and maximize participation.

The good news is, we are confident we will have a 2020-21 season. All indications show no reason to delay registration. It will open as scheduled on or around May 26, followed by the open book exams and online seminar curriculum on June 1. 

SafeSport Training (required for anyone born in the year 2003 or earlier) and background screening (learn about the new national level screening program in the Q & A section) will also be available to complete at that time. If COVID-19 still has things slowed down in early June, it would be an ideal time to get these requirements completed.

The biggest unknown will be the timing in which we will be able to conduct seminars. The vast majority of rinks are currently closed, and many of them took this opportunity to remove ice to save operating costs and do maintenance. There is now doubt they will be prepared to quickly ramp up once they are allowed to do so, but as with most everything right now, the timing is uncertain. As a result, some of the earlier seminars may be pushed back a few weeks. The District Referees-in-Chief will secure ice times and facilities so we can provide seminar dates and locations as quickly as possible. We are also encouraging our instructors to think outside the box by providing some weeknight seminar options, and to look at other ways to best meet the needs of our members.

The Advanced Officiating Symposium, scheduled for Providence, R.I. in late July, is still going to plan. We will continue to monitor the situation, including local restrictions and travel advisories in the coming weeks, and we will announce any changes in advance to allow for alterations to travel arrangements. Click here for up-to-date information or to reserve your seat at the 2020 Advanced Officiating Symposium.

These are difficult times for everyone, and although our hockey family is important to us, it is a small fraction of the big picture that is impacting our daily lives. To quote Andy Dufresne in his letter for Red that he left under the big oak tree in The Shawshank Redemption: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

We hope you and your loved ones are safe and healthy. We hope the coronavirus is conquered with minimal loss of lives and a return to a prosperous normal as soon as possible. We hope your passion for the game of hockey will only grow as a result of its absence. We hope we are back on the ice in the coming months and that the 2020-21 season will be our best yet.

Thank you for your continued support of USA Hockey and don’t hesitate to contact us if there is anything we can do to make your hockey experience a better one. In the meantime, stay safe, stay healthy and be prepared to be back on the ice soon.

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