BUFFALO, N.Y. – It doesn’t matter if it’s men, women, World Juniors or a sled hockey exhibition game. Anytime the United States and Canada meet on international ice, it has a way of getting hockey fans’ blood boiling on both sides of the border.
When the North American rivals meet Sunday in the gold-medal game at the 2015 IPC Sled Hockey World Championship, it will be just the next chapter in a border war that dates to an era of wooden hockey sticks and the Original Six.
Jeff Sauer has been in the middle of the rivalry for close to 30 years when he helped coach his first U.S. Men’s National Team at the 1985 IIHF World Championship. He has seen things intensify over the years as the U.S. has developed into a top international contender at every level.
“I don’t think there’s a rivalry in any other sport in North America that’s more intense than when the U.S. and Canada meet in a hockey game,” Sauer said after Saturday’s practice.
“Every time we play them we go into the game trying to gain their respect. That’s what we’re looking for more than anything.”
Both teams come into Sunday’s game having made easy work of the competition. Canada sliced through Group A, outscoring the opposition 27-2, while the U.S. took care of business in Group B with a 26-1 goal differential.
Sauer is hoping that the U.S. will use its depth to wear down the Canadians who sport the top line in the tournament with Billy Bridges, Greg Westlake and Brad Bowden, who finished the preliminary round with 10 points each.
The U.S. counters with three solid lines that Sauer is confident to use at any point in the game, led by the dynamic teenagers Brody Roybal (16) and Declan Farmer (17) along with linemate Kevin McKee. The second line consists of three former members of the U.S military Josh Sweeney, Paul Schaus and Luke McDermott, who combine skill with grit to pack a solid one-two punch. The third line, which has been solid contributors here in Buffalo, is led by local star Adam Page along with Dan McCoy and Josh Misiewicz.
“We have to be aware of Canada’s top line – it’s one of the top lines in the world – but they have to be aware of our guys too,” Sauer said. “Our top two lines don’t take a backseat to anyone, but in this tournament our leading scorer [Adam Page] is the right wing on our third line.”
Where Sauer may try to match Canada’s top line could be at the back end, where the U.S. blueline crew has been solid in limiting opponents to an average of seven shots per game.
And even when shots do sneak through, the U.S. is confident that they have the top goaltender in the game in veteran Steve Cash.
“People ask me if I ever fall asleep back there, but I say I’m here to play games,” says Cash, who has surrendered only one goal in the tournament. “Whether I get five shots, 20 or 30, I’m still always mentally prepared.”
The last time the two countries met in the World Championships was in 2013 in Goyang, South Korea, where Grame Murray’s lofted point shot looked to be going wide until it skipped along the ice, deflected off Cash and rolled over the goal line for the only score of the game.
“Steve Cash is such a perfectionist that I know he thinks about that shot even now, and wishes he had that one back,” Sauer said.
The two countries met in an exhibition series in late March in Charlotte, N.C., where the U.S. won all three hard-fought games. While the series was a good warm up for the World Championship, it will matter little when the puck drops on Sunday.
“It’s always a competitive battle when we play Canada. They come out and give it 100 percent game in and game out,” said Cash, who will be playing in his fifth World Championship gold-medal game.
“The exhibition series in Charlotte they definitely made it difficult on us even though we took the series. They came out and made it each game pretty hard, and we know that’s what they’ll do on Sunday.”