BY DOUG WILLIAMS I MAY 14, 2013
|Sled hockey player Rico Roman poses for a portrait during the
USOC shoot on April 27, 2013 in West Hollywood, Calif.
Rico Roman was still relatively new to sled hockey when he tried out for the U.S. national team that would play in the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games.
He was in his first season playing for the all-military San Antonio Rampage in 2009, had fallen in love with the game and thought he’d give it his best shot.
Yet he quickly found out that his learning curve was a bit steeper than he had anticipated.
For one thing, he was like a Volkswagen Bug chasing Ferraris.
“I just kind of underestimated it, thinking it wasn’t going to be that fast-paced,” he recalls, laughing. “And that wasn’t the case.”
Roman didn’t make the U.S. team that went on to win the gold medal at Vancouver. Three years later, however, Roman appears to be a good bet to make the U.S. squad that will play at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.
He’s in his second year as a member of the U.S. national team that won the 2012 International Paralympic Committee World Championship tournament in Norway and a silver medal at this year’s world tournament in South Korea.
Since falling short of making the 2010 Paralympic team, Roman is a much different player.
“When I first got in (with the national team) I would say Rico was bordering on being a bubble player,” said Guy Gosselin, an assistant to head coach Jeff Sauer on the national team. “He has worked his tail off to become a better hockey player and he’s done an excellent job. … He’s only getting better.
“He comes to play every time he gets on the ice. Gives you 110 percent. Unbelievable attitude, always upbeat, wants to learn more every time he gets on the ice. And when you talk about training with a purpose, he would definitely be one of those guys.”
The team for Sochi officially will be selected at a camp this July.
This time, the former VW Bug believes he’s up to speed.
“I feel really good,” said Roman, 32. “After this season I feel like I played really well and the team played really well and I don’t see why they wouldn’t pick me up. As long as I perform, I should be good.”
* * *
When Roman was growing up in Portland, Ore., he had no interest in hockey. He didn’t play it or watch it on TV. He wrestled and played football and basketball.
After graduating from high school, he joined the U.S. Army.
He was deployed four times, once to Kosovo and three times to Iraq. On his third Middle East tour in 2007, Staff Sgt. Roman was riding in a Humvee when it struck an improvised explosive device. The explosion ripped through the vehicle, damaging both of his legs. The injuries to his left leg were so severe that his leg had to be amputated.
Roman was determined to remain active. While rehabbing and living in San Antonio, Texas, with his wife, Nathalie, and their son (Raul) and daughter (Juliet), he began playing wheelchair basketball.
Soon, the door to hockey was opened for him — in a roundabout way — through Operation Comfort, a San Antonio-based group that works to get disabled U.S. military personnel and veterans into adaptive sports.
Through Operation Comfort, Roman did a 150-mile bike ride on a hand cycle. One member of Operation Comfort saw Roman’s athletic ability and asked if he would be interested in playing sled hockey for the San Antonio Rampage, an all-military team sponsored by Operation Comfort and the American Hockey League team of the same name.
At first, Roman declined. But when his friend continued to badger him, Roman agreed to try. Immediately, he was hooked.
“It was just like football on ice,” Roman said. “Banging around. And we are an all-veteran team. It was just so much fun.”
|Sled hockey player Rico Roman poses for a portrait during the
USOC photo shoot on April 27, 2013 in West Hollywood, Calif.
Sled hockey (known internationally as sledge hockey) is played just like ice hockey, but participants sit in low-to-the-ice sleds. Players have short hockey sticks in each hand with metal pics on the butt-end of the sticks they can use to propel themselves across the ice.
For a former football player/wrestler who loves getting physical and craves an exhausting workout, sled hockey is the best sport he’s found. He still plays wheelchair basketball, but sled hockey is what he craves. He plays for the Rampage while also playing on the U.S. national team.
“I think it’s just the speed of the game and how fast you’ve got to be moving,” Roman explained. “I just haven’t had any other adaptive sport work me out, that gives me the workout that sled hockey does. You’re using your core, your upper body. … It’s just so much fun.”
And, wearing a helmet and pads again, he can get in his licks.
“Oh, it’s full contact,” he said, laughing. “I think that’s why I’m on defense. I definitely bring that to the table.”
* * *
When Roman started in sled hockey, he played forward. But last year, Sauer asked if he would mind playing defense.
“I told them (coaches) that I’ll play wherever they want me to play,” Roman said.
So, that’s where he’s been contributing, and he likes the switch. It gives him a chance to make a difference, get physical and play where he’s needed.
Gosselin, who works with the defensemen, said the switch has allowed Roman to “read the landscape a little bit better.”
“He’s not afraid to bang, and sometimes against certain countries it gets a little escalated,” said Gosselin, chuckling. “He’s not afraid to get his nose in there. That’s nice to have if we have to turn it up a notch.”
Roman has been a big part this past season of an excellent U.S. team that went 14-3-0.
In December, Roman played all five games and had a goal and two assists as the U.S. won the World Hockey Challenge in Calgary, Canada, defeating the hosts for the title. In the USA Hockey Sled Cup in North Carolina, he played all four games and registered an assist. He also registered an assist in a victory over Norway at the World Championship tournament in South Korea in April.
In the 2011-12 season, he played in five games as the United States won the world title in Norway. To date, being a part of that gold-medal team is his highlight.
Though he and another military veteran were disappointed at the start of that tournament for not being selected to suit up, when they did get the chance they were able to play key roles.
Now, it feels as if he and his buddy passed the test.
“At the end of those games, we were like the key players on the penalty kill and we beat all the other teams,” he recalled. “It was great to come back and bring something to the team, making an impact.”
After that tournament, Team USA goaltender Steve Cash told USA Hockey that Roman — while not showing up big on the score sheet with goals and assists — was a big part of the team’s success.
“Every team needs those energy guys who go out there and give everything they have every shift,” Cash said. “They might not score the big goals, but they make the little plays that eventually lead to the big plays.”
Roman is one of several current military members or veterans on the national team, along with goaltender Jen Yung Lee, Craig Brady, Josh Sweeney and Paul Schaus.
Though he didn’t grow up with a love or understanding of hockey, today Roman is a hockey fanatic, not only as a player but also as an NHL fan. (He is an avid fan of the Dallas Stars.) He said his understanding of the game has increased markedly over the last couple of years because of conversations with Sauer, his head coach. Now, he even helps coach the Rampage.
“Coach Sauer, he taught me a lot more about the game,” Roman said. “I got interested in watching hockey because I know what they’re doing, I know what plays they’re setting up. It’s really cool.”
Often his wife and kids come to watch him play, and he calls them his No. 1 fans. He’s hoping if can make the U.S. team for Sochi, they will be able to watch him play.
Meanwhile, he will try to convert his kids — who’ve played soccer, basketball and football — into hockey players.
“I just got them skating,” he says. “I really want them to skate.”