In so many ways, everything Josh Sweeney has been through in his life — good and bad — keeps bringing him back to hockey.
It’s been the sport he loved since childhood, playing on rinks around Phoenix both for recreation and on organized teams. And now, the sport has been the lifeline to redefine his future, as he hopes to lead Team USA to a gold medal in sled hockey in the upcoming Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.
Sweeney, a center for Team USA and also one of the team’s alternate co-captains, is a retired Marine sergeant who was seriously injured in 2009 while on patrol in Nowzad, Afghanistan. Sweeney stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED), and was tossed like a rag doll. He thought he was dying, while waiting for two hours for a medical transport, realizing he was bleeding heavily from many wounds.
Retired Marine Sergeant Josh Sweeney was injured by an improvised explosive device (IED) in 2009 while serving in Afghanistan.
Sweeney’s life was saved, but the damage from the explosion cost him both legs and wounded his left hand and arm. He received a Purple Heart for his service and courage, but also knew his days as Marine were finished because of his injuries.
“If you had told me back in 2009, 2010 that I would be on the ice again, playing hockey, I would probably have thought you were a little crazy,” Sweeney, 26, said. “It was a really hard time. I was going through a lot. I mean, how could I play hockey, given that I was lying in a hospital bed, really hurt?
“But then again, I never rule anything out in my future. I go for it. You never know where life takes you. I’m living proof of that.”
Sweeney’s rehab progressed to the point where, in 2011, he became interested in trying sled hockey with the local Rampage club in San Antonio. He admits he was a bit of a mess at the start, learning how to navigate on the sled and best handle his stick.
It was quickly apparent that Sweeney’s reintroduction to hockey was happy reunion, as his skills returned. He has strong vision on the ice, frequently leading Team USA’s offensive rush and looking for open teammates.
He joined the USA Hockey national team for the 2011-12 season, and helped win the 2012 International Paralympic Committee Ice Sledge Hockey World Championships A in Hamar, Norway. The team took silver in the 2013 world championships, with Sweeney’s role increasing.
In December, he was nominated to the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team by USA Hockey, with his spot pending approval by the United States Olympic Committee in February.
It takes time to learn the nuances of sled hockey. Sweeney has recalibrated his hockey, from standing tall on skates to now being close to the ice sitting on the sled. Building balance, seeing how the puck comes off the boards, and building endurance have all been a process.
But Sweeney came in with an advantage. Many of his teammates never played hockey before, and the sense of how to set up plays never left him. His calling card as a player is his speed and upper-body strength, as he’s frequently able to beat other players down the ice.
“That was something interesting I found out when I started sled, is that I really do have a lot of speed,” Sweeney said. “I want to be like a (Pavel) Datsyuk, (Michael) Ribeiro, as they are not big shooters, but they are really good with the puck. They draw people in, which leaves a guy open. That’s what happened the last few times we’ve played, most of the focus comes to me when I get in the zone.
“And that leaves me some space to throw it to somebody else to score.”
The recipient of Sweeney’s passes is often forward Rico Roman, who has learned to stay on alert by the net.
“He is so good, so strong, so fast, I love watching him,” Roman said.
Sweeney and Roman often are on the same line and have a strong connection on and off the ice. Like Sweeney, Roman was injured during military service. He was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army when he lost his left leg in 2007 to an IED in Iraq. The two met while in rehab in San Antonio and have played for the Rampage.
“I’ve seen Josh since the start of his coming back to hockey, and he is getting better every time he gets on the ice,” Roman, 32, said. “He can control the game. And everybody sees how hard he is always working. He has everybody’s respect because he leads by example.”
Roman joked that he doesn’t want Sweeney to get a big head from his praise.
“I have to give him some grief, because Army guys don’t take orders from Marines,” Roman said, laughing. “We got to keep some things straight here.”
In a way, representing the United States in the Paralympic Movement provides some closure for Sweeney and Roman. Both men said one of the hardest parts of being injured was leaving their fellow troops. They were scooped up from their blast sites and taken for life-saving medical treatment.
But that also meant never seeing their fellow Marine and Army comrades in action again. Playing hockey brings that same fellowship again: being on one team, with a collective purpose.
“I know being a Marine gives me the discipline and focus to be a good hockey player,” Sweeney said. “I get to be a leader, help the younger guys, and I love that. It’s that same feeling of camaraderie, being with other guys who are on the same mission as you. That’s something you really miss when you get taken away from it, like I did when I was injured.
“Hockey has given me a unit again. And I get a little emotional when I think what it’s going to be like when we get on the ice in Sochi and hear the national anthem, wearing our USA uniforms. That’s going to be super-special.”
Team USA begins a three-games series with No. 1 Canada tonight in Indian Trail, N.C.
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.