The tales are epic, and yes, sometimes squarely in Beavis and Butthead sophomoric territory. But if you’re a member of the U.S. sled hockey team, expect to: A) laugh with your teammates, B) laugh at yourself, and C) definitely be on guard for the prank patrol.
The team, which is aiming to defend its world championship title at the Para Sled Hockey World Championship in Gangneung, South Korea April 13-20, shares a healthy and potent sense of humor on and off the ice.
“Because we can laugh and make fun of each other, that shows we are strong together,” said veteran defenseman Josh Pauls, who’s acknowledged as one of the team’s best purveyors of sarcasm. “Humor is a great way to jump-start the bonding process.
“From my experience, if we’re loose and joking before a game, we’re probably going to go out there and play well. If a locker room is silent, people are tense, yeah, that’s probably not going to go well.”
The humor has also transformed the team’s culture, with Pauls tracing its origins back to 2010. As soon as the team started bonding more, with humor part of its hard work on and off the ice, the medals and championships followed.
It’s now part of the team’s framework, and Pauls hopes the winning and laughs continue for Team USA for a long time. He also hopes the way he approaches life will educate the public about Paralympians and their capabilities.
He likes to make fun of everything: himself, his disability, the game, other players and life situations, just anything that pops into his head to make people laugh. Pauls, who was born missing tibias in both legs, has been a double amputee since he was a baby. But he will be the first one to make a joke about “walking” or “nice legs.”
His comedic flow is non-stop, but it’s done with purpose. He sees humor as a doorway to the world, helping people look at him — and other Paralympians — in a brighter light.
“I’m really open about my life and what’s going on — I will make the first joke about myself usually,” Pauls said. “People see my disability, and I make a joke to put them at ease. It will either, one, have them laugh and say, ‘Oh wow awesome,’ or two, look at me as if I am not allowed to joke about things like that. Jokes help people get past things, and that works in the outside world and on the ice, too. We don’t hide anything, we’re open.”
That loose attitude and wicked sense of humor is shared by forward Brody Roybal. He’s one of the younger members of Team USA at 18, but he already has a gold medal from Sochi.
Roybal admits he has a reputation. If a prank has gone down, invariably, the rest of the team looks to Roybal as the prime instigator. And the chances are slim that he wasn’t somehow in on the caper. Usually, with his linemates Declan Farmer and Kevin McKee as his partners in prankery.
Case in point: if somebody on Team USA has their car filled with toilet paper, and then sealed tight in plastic wrap … look to Roybal’s crew. If somebody has a missing skate or car keys … yep, it’s probably those guys.
Yet, he’s getting it back, too.
Like when McKee dismantled Roybal’s wheelchair, piece-by-piece, bolt-by-bolt, and left him a few tools to put it back together. Or the time somebody put lobster and fish parts in McKee and Roybal’s hockey bags during practice, and those bits fermented into their own disgusting smells and slimes on the bench.
The fish prank was good, until a player had to seek medical attention because the stink was activating a shellfish allergy. Pauls said the unofficial prank memo went out — no more stunts with shellfish or known allergens to players.
“This team is just hilarious, we’re all doing our own crazy stuff, it’s not just me — really,” Roybal said. “What’s great about this team is you don’t have to earn your stripes; we accept everybody who comes, you’re part of us now. We’re super friendly and we all get along so well. Being able to be sarcastic, or prank people, shows that we all do care about each other. It’s never mean, always funny.”
Indeed, the love was shown to Roybal, even when his deconstructed wheelchair was the crime scene. He had about 20-30 minutes by himself to put it back together. After that, if he needed help, McKee and his teammates were there.
“And that is everything. We weren’t going to leave Brody there with no transportation,” Pauls said. “It was an awesome prank. But in the end, we’re going to put him back together and pick him up. Because we’re a team.”
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for the New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.