Melting Pot

A Mix Of Cagey Veterans And Talented Newcomers Take Aim At Paralympic Hat Trick
By: 
Greg Bates

 

Steve Cash is confident. And he has every right to be.

As the backbone of the U.S. National Sled Team, the veteran goaltender from St. Louis has led his country to the gold medal in the last two Paralympic Games.

And with a mix of cagey veterans and talented newcomers, the Americans are the favorites once again this year.

Cash is confident his team can take home another gold when the U.S. heads to PyeongChang, South Korea to participate in the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in March.

"Right now, what we have is accountability, responsibility and just guys that respect one another, so it makes things a lot easier and definitely builds confidence going into the Paralympic Games," said Cash, who is the team's starting goalie.

Of the 17 players on the U.S. roster, 10 have already played in at least one Paralympics. Josh Pauls, Nikko Landeros and Adam Page all competed in 2010 and '14, and Cash will be skating in his team-record fourth Paralympics.

"It definitely helps having guys that have gone through it before," Pauls said. "It's kind of nice to have somebody that can relay what to expect and things like that. That's stuff you hope to pass onto younger guys."

Cash feels like this year's Paralympic team is a unit that's playing as one, with everyone buying into the program. It's a slightly different feel than past Games, he said.

"There's a lot more chemistry among the guys," he said. "You can tell that it's not just a few guys here and there getting along and feeding off of another; it's everybody as a whole contributing. You can see the chemistry is really there."

In the previous two Paralympics, the Americans have been dominant, compiling a 9-1 record while outscoring their opponents, 32-3. Cash has virtually been a stonewall, tallying eight shutouts.

"That's a credit to our goaltending on out," said team general manager Dan Brennan. "It's sticking to the small details that can win you hockey games. If you don't stick to them they can cost you big time. We're going to over focus on those things, especially when we play Canada, and kind of take it from there."

The U.S. has shown it doesn't have any problem scoring goals, so the team's defense will be key in the Paralympics.

"We like to play from the net out and there's a little structure on our defense, more so than our offense," U.S. head coach Guy Gosselin said. "We like to get very creative with the puck and we have the skillsets that can do that.

"Obviously, defense wins championships."

Cash feels like the defenders in front of him just keep improving. It's an experienced group led by captain Pauls and alternate captain Landeros, along with defensive stalwart Tyler Carron. Those three players have eight Paralympics under their belts.

"I think one thing that was really lacking a few years ago, predating Sochi, was there just wasn't enough communication between me and our defensemen or our defensive pairings  and our forwards," Cash said.

"We're making sure we're out there talking to each other on the ice and everyone's got their head on a swivel. It makes it a lot easier in the D-zone to be picking up guys and being in the right spot. As a result of that, we get a quicker transition game. I think that's what we're really focusing on."

The Americans are under the direction of a new coach this Paralympics. Gosselin took over the head job after Jeff Sauer, who coached the 2010 and '14 gold-medal winning teams, passed away last February from pancreatic cancer.

Gosselin, who is in his third stint with the team after serving as an assistant coach from 2011-15, made his head coaching debut at last year's world championship. The two-time Olympian has built solid rapport with his players, which has helped create a smooth transition.

"Nothing's changed. We've got a very good relationship," Gosselin said. "I think I carry myself the same way I carried myself with Jeff [Sauer]. It's a little bit of a different role in that leadership."

Added Cash, "He knows what it takes to lead us into battle."

That's exactly what kind of guidance the Americans will need against a strong field in the Paralympics. The only team to beat the U.S. in the previous two Games were the Russians, which won't be able to compete this year since the country is banned after a doping scandal. Norway and South Korea have upped their games and continue to improve, but Canada remains the Americans' biggest rival.

"They're neck-and-neck with us, and we're going to have to play our best game to beat them," Brennan said.

Canada knocked off the U.S. to win the gold medal in the 2017 Para Sled Hockey World Championship. The American got a measure of revenge by beating Canada, 3-2, to win the 2017 World Sled Hockey Challenge just before Christmas.

Gosselin wants his team to be clicking on all cylinders when they arrive in PyeongChang. The Americans will be seeking a fourth gold medal in the seventh Winter Games that sled hockey has been a Paralympic sport.

"A gold medal is really our ultimate goal and it has been since the beginning of the season," Pauls said. "It's really kind of gold or bust for us. And we kind of know as long as we play our game and we work real hard, we're going to come back with it."

 Gosselin appreciates the confidence his charges exude, but he knows the have to back it up once they hit the ice.

"I can tell you our guys are capable, but it comes down to performance," Gosselin said. "Talk is cheap."

 

Greg Bates is a freelance writer based in Green Bay, Wis.

 

Issue: 
2018-03

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