By Dan Hickling
Special to USAHockey.com
WILLIAMSVILLE, N.Y. – It's been barely four months since USA's sled hockey triumph at the Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, and you would think a gilded resume would be a ticket to a spot on the 2014-15 U.S. National Sled Hockey Team. Right?
Nope. Not necessarily.
Which is why one saw the likes of Josh Sweeney, Steve Cash and Josh Pauls, all of them gold-medal winners, intermingled among nearly 50 other hopefuls at U.S. National Team tryouts held at The Northtown Center in suburban Buffalo.
All three, plus eight more returnees from last year's Paralympic champions, seemed to be locks to regain their spots on the team.
But sports is a “what have you done lately?” beast, and four months might as well be an eternity. And you don't get to wear, or sink your teeth into a gold medal by taking anything for granted.
As it happened, all 11 returning members from Sochi, along with six newcomers, successfully battled their way onto the 2014-15 roster, which has just been announced by USA Hockey.
Thus began the four-year ramp up to the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and a hoped-for third consecutive gold medal.
“That's hockey,” said Sweeney, who netted the lone goal in the gold-medal victory against Russia. “That's how it is. It's a real humbling sport. You can't get too big-headed. You'll start to think you're doing real well, then you'll be on the ice for a practice and be the worst player out there. It's one of those sports that's keeps you real humble. [I worked] just as hard as these guys to earn a spot on this team. The coaches are looking at skill and how they can put together another gold-medal winning team.
That sentiment was echoed by Pauls, who like Cash, has two gold medals to display.
“This is a whole new cycle,” noted Pauls. “Hey, we won in Sochi, and that's all great. But now we're on the road to Pyeongchang.”
The first major stop on the route will be back in Buffalo, at the 2015 International Paralympic Committee Ice Sledge Hockey World Championship, to be staged April 24-May 2 at the soon-to-be opened HARBORCENTER.
They'll do so without half a dozen key members of the Sochi squad.
Veteran team leaders Andy Yohe, a defenseman, and Taylor Lipsett, a forward, have retired from competition, while defenseman and alternate captain Taylor Chace and forwards Rico Roman and Greg Shaw are sitting out this season.
Goalie Jen Lee, who is on active duty with the US Army, is also taking time off.
Those departures will leave a huge hole in the Team USA lineup and dressing room.
“Not only are they buddies of mine,” said Cash, the goalie who backstopped Team USA to gold at the 2010 and 2014 Paralympics, “but they're brothers. Their leadership on the ice will factor in. We'll have newer guys coming in who haven't been on the team before. They're not really sure what to expect. [But] I don't have any doubts that within a year, we'll be clicking on all cylinders.”
Said fourth-year head coach Jeff Sauer, “The emotional thing for me is the guys who retired. They were a huge part of our success. They are like sons to me. I'd like to see them continue forever. That's just not the way it's going to be.”
Even so, Sauer, the savvy veteran bench boss that he is, is already figuring out ways to mix the old blood with the new.
“I think our team speed is improved from last year,” said Sauer. “The new guys will make us a faster team than we were. That will be a big plus.”
Sauer's biggest challenge will be to make up for the losses of defensive rocks Yohe and Chace.
He's promoted blueliners Sam Mumper and Billy Hanning from the U.S. National Developmental Team and also plans to shift the versatile Pauls from forward back to defense, a role with which he has experience.
“I don't really want to [move Pauls],” Sauer said, “but I think we have to do that. That takes a little bit away from the first line, but I think we can handle that.”