Taylor Chace was the top U.S. defenseman at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, where Team USA won gold.
Having been to two previous Paralympic Winter Games, Taylor Chace knows what to expect.
The standout sled hockey defenseman for Team USA was part of the Americans’ bronze-medal team at Torino, Italy, in 2006 and the gold-medal team at Vancouver in 2010.
So he knows that when he and his teammates get to Sochi, Russia, for this year’s Games, which begin March 7, their minds will be on hockey but they’ll be dealing with distractions they see only every four years. And those distractions can get in the way of their goal, which is to become the first nation to win sled hockey gold at back-to-back Paralympic Winter Games.
Sidestepping all the noise can be difficult, however. So as a veteran, it’s part of his job to help keep everyone’s eyes on the prize.
“I’ve learned that there’s a lot of things that you can’t control and you can't worry about,” Chace said. “In terms of a bus being late for a practice or a meal that wasn’t planned or any type of logistical conflicts that you encounter when you’re there or if you didn’t get a good night’s sleep. All those things. You can’t worry about that because that will bring your team down, your own play down, and you just need to focus on what you can control.”
As sled hockey players, they usually fly under the radar for media and fan attention. But every four years, suddenly their time is in demand.
“You’ve got to be there for the guys that haven’t experienced that and make them feel as comfortable as they can be so they don’t become overwhelmed and distracted,” he said.
Chace, 27, is one of four players on the 17-player roster that have played on the 2006 and ’10 teams, the others being goaltender Steve Cash, defenseman Andy Yohe and forward Taylor Lipsett. Four other players return from the Vancouver team: defensemen Nikko Landeros and Josh Pauls and forwards Adam Page and Greg Shaw. Chace believes all the veterans should keep the team on track.
“It’s good to have that experience when you’re going over with the guys who haven’t experienced the entirety of the Paralympic Games, including the Opening Ceremony and media coverage that we don’t normally get,” he said. “There’s a lot of ripple effects on your schedule, and you’ve got to be able to harness it all and do the best you can with it.”
Chace, who was named the Paralympic tournament’s top defenseman in 2010 when Team USA won its second sled hockey gold medal (its first came in 2002), has been a mainstay of the U.S. team since 2005. Over that span he’s also helped the United States win International Paralympic Committee World Championships in 2009 and 2012, a silver medal in 2013 — when he was named top defenseman — and a bronze in 2008.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder grew up in New Hampshire playing hockey, but suffered a broken back and a spinal cord injury in 2002 when he was 16 during a game while playing for the Eastern Junior Hockey League’s New Hampshire Monarchs.
At the time, he thought he’d never play hockey again. But two years later he was introduced to sled hockey while at the University of New Hampshire as part of the school’s Northeast Passage program that gets young athletes into adaptive sports.
Soon, Chace had worked his way onto the U.S. national team, and new vistas opened up for international competition, travel, the Paralympic Winter Games and being part of a team again. Just having the chance to play hockey at a high level has been a blessing, he said.
“It’s so special to me,” he said. “It means everything to me. It keeps me going, it keeps me motivated. I think it does that for all my teammates, who’ve been through something pretty intense earlier in their life, too. I guess you felt a big loss. So when you have this opportunity to compete and to physically feel free again, it’s such an important piece of your life.”
While competing for the national team and his Northeast Passage club team, Chace also has become a part of Northeast Passage, giving back to young athletes looking for the same opportunities he now has. Chace, who lives in Hampton Falls, N.H., is a program specialist who works with student-athletes in adaptive sports — particularly in strength training and conditioning — and also recruits students. In addition, he coaches hockey for both adaptive and non-adaptive athletes.
“I came up through the program myself and when I was a student at UNH, so I’m able to share that experience with them, which I think is really key,” he said.
At the moment, however, he’s put everything aside to focus on Sochi. He lists Canada and host Russia as two of the biggest obstacles to the Team USA repeating. The Americans will have their work cut out, but their goal is clear.
“Our No. 1 expectation is to finish first in the tournament,” he said. “Anything less than that I think is a major disappointment. … Based on how we finished 2010 with an unbelievable tournament and the group of players we have right now — they’re just so talented and hungry for the gold medal — I think anything less would be pretty disappointing.”
Chace again will be one of the keys to the U.S. defense, along with goaltender Cash, who didn’t allow a goal in Vancouver. Chace says his role on the ice is to make good decisions, play physically and work as hard as he can.
“It really comes down to making the proper decisions during the game when the pressure’s on, because you only have a few games to be successful,” he said. “The tournament comes once every four years, so you have to be ready.”
Bill Stewart, who coaches his club team, the Northeast Passage Wildcats, has said that Chace brings special qualities to a team when he’s on the ice.
“Taylor’s a very physical, intense guy with a lethal shot from either hand,” Stewart told the Boston Globe this year. “But he’s also spent countless hours working on his shot and his skating, which at the elite level you need to be competitive.”
After winning the gold at Vancouver four years ago, Chace wasn’t entirely certain he would stick around to be part of the 2014 team. But as 2011 and 2012 slipped by, he knew he wanted to be part of a third Paralympic team.
“I think the biggest part of it is you have the opportunity to defend the gold medal and win it in back-to-back Paralympics, which no team’s done in sled hockey,” he said. “So we want to defend it. I think it actually means more to the guys that were there in 2010. Winning that gold medal was great, but I think it means more to defend that No. 1 spot.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for USParalympics.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.