AMHERST, N.Y. – When the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team captured gold last March in Sochi, they didn’t do it for themselves.
They did it for each other. They did it for all disabled athletes. And they did it for all Americans, too.
But even though they didn’t come back home looking for perks, there were a few of those that came their way following all that face time provided by NBC, which aired a live broadcast of the gold-medal game and the rousing ceremony that left the U.S. players with gold medals around their necks.
Among the perks was a little street cred for a sport that, for even the most rabid ice hockey fans, has lived a shadowy existence.
“I’ve had a guy come up to me at 7-Eleven,” said versatile forward Josh Pauls, “and say, ‘Hey, you’re the guy who won the Paralympics.’ It was really cool to have that kind of awareness (for the sport). It’s come so far since when I started.”
Even so, life for each of Team USA’s 17 athletes has been close to normal, or as close to it as newfound fame will allow.
Most of them found the need to decompress from what had been a demanding, albeit successful, Paralympic run.
“I took it easy,” said Josh Sweeney, the retired Marine who scored the lone goal against Russia in the gold-medal game. “It was a rest time for my muscles and my joints. I had worked so hard last season working up to the Paralympics, making sure I was prepared. I enjoyed the off time, but I wanted to get back to where I could start training again.”
Pauls, who said he took a month off to recover from the grind, echoed the sentiment this past weekend, when the U.S. players reconvened for tryouts for the 2014-15 national team.
“Sometimes it’s good to get away from the rink,” he said. “Some of us are (hockey) addicts. I’m an addict for sure. But’s it’s always nice to get away from the rink and relax. Enjoy life.”
Part and parcel of that enjoyment was to bask in the glow of an appreciative nation.
Several team members were honored by their hometown NHL clubs including Declan Farmer by the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Paul Schaus and Adam Page by the Buffalo Sabres. Page was later tabbed by the Triple A Buffalo Bisons to throw out a ceremonial first pitch.
Pauls and goaltender Steve Cash, both St. Louisans, were given a hero’s welcome by the Blues before a contest with the Minnesota Wild, a tribute that made an impact on both players.
“That was phenomenal,” Pauls said. “Having that many people just cheering for you. Being honored by the Blues and Wild players. Being with (2014 U.S. Olympic ice hockey players) David Backes and Zach Parise to take the faceoff. It was unbelievable. We got a tour of the locker room and ended up getting a couple of sticks out of it. Everybody was asking for your picture and trying to see the medal. They took great care of us. We had worked really hard for it, and it was nice to be recognized for that.”
Said Cash, “My family said the ovation that we got just shook the place. And the Blues scored four goals that game. It was really special.”
Pauls said that friends and strangers alike want to handle the shiny bauble he brought back from Sochi.
With tongue in cheek, he said that he can’t figure that out.
“Everybody wants to see the medal for some reason,” he said. “I don’t know why. They don’t really want to see me. They just want to see the medal. So I give them what they want.”
Then, referring to the famous scene of team members clamping a molar down on their medals to “check” their authenticity, Pauls said that the line has to be drawn somewhere.
“I’m the only one who gets to bite it,” he said. “I made sure it’s real, so they can take my word for it.”
Dan Hickling is a freelance writer and photographer based in Buffalo, New York. Over a 20-year career, he has covered hockey at all levels from the NHL to junior, and is a longtime member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.