Redemption for American hockey fans, stung by a pair of bitter Olympic losses to Canada, now rests largely on one skating line featuring three combat veterans who, between them, have lost five legs on the battlefield.
The trio –- two retired Marines wounded in Afghanistan and a former U.S. soldier severely injured in Iraq -– proudly dubs itself the “Ugly Hockey Line.” As a unit that separately weathered enemy fire, they’re embracing a new mission at the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi: shut down the opponents’ top scorers and finally claim gold in Russia.
The team faces Russia after beating Canada 3-0 on Thursday.
Watch the sled hockey final on NBC at 1 p.m. ET on Saturday, March 15.
They’ve gone from national defense to ice defense, now taking aim at a new – albeit sporting – target.
“Watching the women lose was very upsetting, and after seeing the men not make that gold medal game, I said: ‘We’re going there and we’re winning that medal. We’re bringing it back.’ That’s just what we’ve got to do,” said Josh Sweeney, who plays left wing on the U.S. sled hockey team. “We love the pressure.”
He and his line mates share a common injury to a common weapon.
Sweeney, 26, lost both legs above the knees after he stepped on an improvised explosive device while patrolling Afghanistan in 2009. He’s joined on the line by Rico Roman, 33, from Portland, Ore., who was leading his Army squad back to its Iraqi base in 2007 when his Humvee struck an IED; one year later, he agreed with doctors that his mangled left leg should be amputated. Their third member is Paul Schaus, 25, from Buffalo, N.Y, whose legs were amputated above the knees after an IED detonated while he patrolled Afghanistan in 2009.
But their injuries led them to the same reclamation place – sheets of ice. In the Paralympic version of the sport, players sit on sleds that ride atop two skate blades. They carry not one but two hockey sticks, shortened, and with the butt ends each affixed with metal picks to jam into the surface to create speed.
From there, it’s just hockey.
The game has long been in Sweeney’s life. He played as a kid in Phoenix. During leaves from his Marine base in California, he would grab his skates and drive four hours back home to play with friends in a house league. On a hospital bed after injury, he turned toward his mother and opened up about what else he’d lost: “I’m not going to be able to play hockey.”
Sweeney eventually was sent to Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas to regain his mobility. There, he met Roman, who introduced him to sled hockey via a club team, the San Antonio Rampage. Roman is an energetic whirlwind known through national TVs ads. He grinds hard through each shift yet owns a laser-like shot – a hockey ambassador who welcomed Sweeney back to a familiar place.
“Hockey saved my life,” said Sweeney, who lives in San Antonio with his wife, Amber. He wears prosthetic legs off the ice. “It's one thing to live just to live. It’s another thing to live to excel.”
After the three veterans made the U.S. team, head coach Jeff Sauer didn’t initially play them as a line. But when that mix was tested in action, their chemistry became instantly obvious. In addition to Roman’s rocket shot, Sweeney sprinkles in goals with his lock-down defense, and Schaus is known for banging opponents.
“I think (coach) finally figured out that when he put us all together, it’s like crazed animals on the ice,” Sweeney said. “Our whole purpose is to stop the top line on the other team from playing their game.”
“With the three of us being military, we know none of us is ever going to quit, whether that’s on the ice or in life,” Roman said. “We don’t relate combat to playing a game. In combat, if you lose, unfortunately you don’t come home.”
But as amputees, they do own a unique advantage. Without the weight of their lower legs, Sweeney and his line mates skate faster than opponents who possess both legs but are unable to use them.
Their line composes three of the four veterans on the 17-man U.S. roster. The other is goalie Jen Lee, still a U.S. Army staff sergeant despite losing his left leg in a 2009 motorcycle accident.
The full U.S. Paralympic team includes 80 athletes – 18 of them veterans or active-duty service members, according to officials at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which operates sports clinics for wounded warriors, working with the U.S. Olympic Committee to develop elite athletes.
In Sochi, the sled hockey tournament is split two groups of four teams. In Group A, there’s Canada, the No. 1 seed. In Group B, there’s Team USA, the No. 2 seed, and the team said they were eager for their matchup ahead of the game.
Fighting is rare in Paralympic hockey because opposing players may be recovering from spine, neck or head injuries. But there are moments when boys will be boys.
“There are some guys on the Canadian team that we are pretty familiar with that if they take a run at us, we definitely let them know we’re not happy,” Sweeney said.
Whether he comes home with gold or not, his spot on the “Ugly Hockey” line will give Sweeney back something he left in Afghanistan.
“Closure,” Sweeney said. “When you’re injured, you’re pulled directly from your unit. You’re told you can’t do what you did before. Most of us loved what we were doing.
“Finding sled hockey let me decide when I’m done playing for my country, when I’m done representing my country, letting me leave on my terms instead of the way that I went out of the military.”