Taylor Chace recently returned from Nagano, Japan, with a memorable keepsake to commemorate his trip.
The souvenir is a silver medal from the Four Nations Tournament, a four-day competition from Jan. 13-16 that featured many of the world's top sled hockey standouts.
Chace, 22, a Hampton Falls resident, was among the tourney's brightest stars.
The assistant captain of the United States National Team, who suffered an incomplete spinal cord injury playing junior hockey in October 2002, led the team in points. The 6-foot 1-inch, 195-pound forward tallied three goals and an assist at the Big Hat Arena. The U.S. reached the championship round against Canada.
"There's a big misconception of Paralympic athletes. It's more of a pat-on-the-back thing, like, 'Good job, you're exercising,'" Chace said yesterday. "It's competitive and it's cut throat. I love it. I love competing and representing my country. I feel very fortunate."
Chace sustained his spinal cord injury as a 16-year-old standout for the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs.
"My goal was to reach the highest level (of hockey) I could," said Chace, whose hockey career began at 5 years old. "It stopped sooner than a lot of people's careers."
While firing a wrist shot from the right wing, Chace said he was "side swiped by the back-checker." He crashed into the boards back-first and shattered the L1 vertebrae in his lower back. Bone hit his spinal cord. Chace said the injury resulted in "permanent paralysis in different parts of my legs."
The team's silver-medal showing was a significant achievement for the program. Chace, a national team skater since late 2005, said the U.S. previously struggled to beat the world's top teams. Playing in a gold-medal game was tough to fathom.
Advancing to the finals of the Four Nations Tournament represented a huge triumph for the team, U.S. head coach Ray Maluta said yesterday from his home in Rochester, N.Y. Consecutive round-robin wins against Canada (1-0 on Jan. 13), Japan (1-0 shootout on Jan. 14) and Norway (7-1 on Jan. 15) boosted confidence for a young 17-player squad that featured 12 athletes between 16 and 23 years old.
Chace certainly played a key role in his club's success.
The University of New Hampshire junior assisted on the lone goal of his team's first win. Two days later against Norway -- in the victory that clinched first place in pool play for the U.S. -- he tallied a hat trick.
Reuniting with Canada in the championship round, the U.S. dropped a 5-0 decision. Still, Chace earned the title tilt's U.S. Player of the Game honors.
"From my perspective, Taylor, as a 22 year old, has proven to be one of our go-to guys and one of our primary leaders on the team," Maluta said. "He played with a ton of intensity. And I think with his leadership, our youth will look up to him and make us grow so we can compete a little better at the 2010 Paralympics (in Vancouver, Canada)."
Aside from U.S. goalie Steve Cash, Chace received the most ice time. Tom Carr of Northeast Passage, a UNH program specializing in disability-related sports, physically prepared Chace.
Workouts with weights and medicine balls continue to be routine.
Maintaining a high heart rate is key, said Chace, who started competing in sled hockey less than two years after his injury. "When we coach, we have no idea that these players are disabled," Maluta said. "This is the NHL for these players. They take it seriously. They compete."
In time -- and supported by his parents, Rick and Lisa, and sisters, Meredith and Rossli -- Chace overcame the mental trauma associated with his injury. He now, on occasion, feels frustrated with the public's perception of disabled athletes. Too often, he said, people focus on the athlete's disability rather than his ability.
Chace is working to change that notion. As part of his current college internship, he is an assistant coach for a 13- and 14-year-old Bantam youth hockey team in Dover.
And, as the only Granite Stater on the U.S. National Team -- and just one of two New England skaters on the roster -- Chace hopes his high-level hockey achievements send a strong message.
"It's good for young kids with disabilities to see that being athletic is a normal thing," Chace said. "I do feel pretty blessed to use my (experience), and turn it over to a positive thing. That's why I wouldn't take back anything that's happened to me in sports."