Ray Maluta, a former NHL player who has spent nearly 40 years coaching and playing hockey, thought he had pretty much seen it all.
But then the U.S. claimed its first gold medal at the 2009 International Paralympic Committee Ice Sledge Hockey World Championship in May.
"I've been on the winning side and losing side of Game 7's as a coach and as a player, and I've played in the Stanley Cup playoffs," said Maluta, a former seventh-round draft pick of the Boston Bruins who retired from pro hockey in 1980.
"But when we won that gold-medal game, I have never felt the rush of enjoyment and emotion. When we scored the game-winning goal and those last 11 seconds [of the game] went by, I had never felt that emotion. I have 28 years of coaching and umpteen as a player, including six years pro, and I had never felt that. It was a very fulfilling award to see them accomplish that. It's beyond words."
With the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games set to begin six months from Saturday, the U.S. team will be the one to watch in Vancouver.
Winning the world title on a goal by Andy Yohe with 11 seconds remaining was incredible, but now the squad is thirsting for more. The United States' momentous victory in the Czech Republic, as far as the players are concerned, is only a sign of things to come.
"For the U.S. it would be huge to win Paralympic gold," said 23-year-old forward Brad Emmerson. "Going into 2002, the U.S. had never even won a Paralympic game, then they went undefeated and won gold. Now our team had never won gold at worlds, and we just did it. To be the first U.S. team to win back-to-back gold medals at worlds then at the Paralympics would be unbelievable."
Winning gold in Vancouver would bring the U.S. sled team to unknown heights. If it wins gold, the U.S. would become the first team to win two gold medals in sled hockey at the Paralympic Winter Games. (The U.S. won a gold medal in Salt Lake City in 2002.) With a balance of returning veterans and fresh faces to the program, confidence is brewing. Emmerson cuts to the chase when describing the status of the team heading into its stretch run prior to the Games.
"Right now we have the best team overall on and off the ice since I've been with the team," he said.
The U.S. team gets its first Paralympic test today and tomorrow in Toronto when it faces Canada in a two-game exhibition series. The squad will play in two international tournaments and compete against Canada in a second exhibition series prior to the Winter Games. (Results from the Sept. 12-13 test series can be found on the USA Hockey Web site.)
The 18-player roster includes 13 members of the team that earned a bronze medal at the Torino 2006 Paralympic Winter Games. The team's growth over the past two years has been exponential.
"We were kind of hoping that when we took the sled hockey program over a season-and-a-half ago, our goal was to compete for gold in Vancouver," Maluta said of sled hockey's transition to being overseen by USA Hockey. "I think we're going to compete for gold in Vancouver, barring any serious injury to key players. If we take the same jump in hockey sense and game sense that we've taken in the last year and a half and make the same jump between now and the Paralympics, I think in Vancouver that we'll be competing on the gold-medal stage."
The edge for Team USA?
"Youth and speed," Maluta said.
A key component of that speed is borne by Taylor Chace, a natural forward whose speed demanded that he anchor the blueline.
"We're ready to get back into the swing of things and get the wheels turning again," said Chace, a 23-year-old who attends the University of New Hampshire. "The guys are super excited for this season. It's huge to be coming off a victory at the world championships. That was a great boost for our team and some of the younger guys. They got some experience in a big game, and got to show what they could do when it's crunch time."
When Team USA won its Paralympic sled hockey gold medal in 2002, Chace had his sights set on an NCAA Division I ice hockey career. In fact, he had never heard of sled hockey while he was playing as a wide-eyed 16-year-old for the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs. Chace shattered his spinal cord in a collision with the dasher boards during a game with the Junior Monarchs in Toronto that year.
"I was coming down the right wing, and I took a shot on my off foot. I got hit pretty hard by a big boy and went flying," said Chace, who had generated hockey scholarship interest from the University of New Hampshire, Boston University and Michigan. "I got sent flying and hit my butt and back first on the bottom part of the boards.
"It was unfortunate, but I'm still playing hockey. [Playing for the sled national team] is probably better than anything I could've done. I've been able to travel and see the world and be around an unbelievable group of guys. [My disability] taught me a lot and I've grown up fast from it."
Like many other able-bodied athletes, Chace was so caught up playing his own game as a teenager that he never knew sled hockey was an option.
"Part of the reason I got into it was I wanted to support the growth of it. I want to help on the youth development side, that's what it needs," Chace said.
By the 2004-05 season, he was a member of the national team.
"When you're playing [able-bodied], sled hockey doesn't cross your mind," he said. "There's really not much out there about it, which is why stories like this are good. I didn't know about it all. I was in rehab looking for something to do because I didn't want to sit around. My sister was going to [the University of New Hampshire] and that's where I was recruited to go. They have the Northeast Passage program for athletes with disabilities, and I found sled hockey through the program.
"Now sled hockey is the love of my life."
Chace's hockey background affords him the opportunity to lend some tactical advice to his teammates.
"It's been pretty unique that way," he said. "Not a lot of guys that I've met have come to the team after they got hurt playing hockey. And that means they haven't been brought up with the fundamentals of the game."
Similarly, Chace has found himself more comfortable around people with a variety of disabilities.
"It's taught me a lot about my own body," he said. "I'm in the locker room and there are prosthetic limbs lying all over the place, but it's the same mentality as any locker room I've ever been in.
"Of course, the pranks and the jokes are a little better here,'' he added. "And trust me, we've pulled some pretty good ones on flight attendants. It's been a really awesome experience for me."
Now able to walk on his own, Chace faced some odds that were initially not in his favor.
"My doctor in Toronto didn't have that good of an outlook that I would be walking," he said. "I'm still left with a lot of impairments, but I'm able to walk. For a while I was in a wheelchair. In rehab, I was busting my (behind) to get some movement back in my lower extremities. I had one of two decisions to make: sit around and feel bad for myself or do something and make the best out of it.
"That's what I did. I pushed myself more than the therapists pushed me. When they would tell me to slow down, I'd keep going. I'd work on my gait and walking until I couldn't breathe."
A foot-long scar on the left side of his torso provides a physical sign of what Chace has overcome.
"They took out a rib bone and used that to fuse my discs together. I had two rods put in vertically and four horizontally. I'm told that my spine is strong as cement now. I hope so," he said.
Chace's playing experience as a youngster gives him a perspective of the game that only a handful of his teammates share.
"A lot of these kids were born with disabilities, so they're very sheltered when they're young. With the older guys in the locker room, a couple of them close to 40, it gets them to grow up a little bit. Their social skills really take off, too," Chace said. "You'll see a difference in a player after he's been with us for a couple of months. It's great to see them come out of their shells."
Similarly, Emmerson saw the team come out of its collective shell as the world championships transpired.
"There's such a rivalry between us (and Canada) and really everybody. Another country might be No. 1 in the world, but we're the team that everybody always wants to take down," Emmerson said. "It's a good feeling. It motivates you even more. It gets into your head and makes you work a little harder when you're having a bad day."
En route to winning gold at the world championships, Team USA beat nemesis Canada in the semifinals. The U.S. had a 1-0 lead with less than a minute to play, but Canada forged the tie.
"At that point, it's hard not to think, 'Not again,'" Emmerson said. "Before that game, they had only lost once in the past year and a half, and that was to us."
Team USA eventually won 2-1 in a shootout.
"Canada had always been the monkey on our backs that we couldn't shake,'' Emmerson said. "They always seemed to come out on top and squeak one out, no matter what. That time, it was a different situation - like everybody had had enough of it."
Maluta's guidance on the squad can't be overlooked, as his passion for the sport parallels his desire to get the most out of his players. When the United States Sled Hockey Association began its affiliation with USA Hockey prior to the Torino 2006 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, Maluta happened to be at the right place at the right time. Working as the executive general manager of the ESL Sports Centre in Rochester, N.Y., Maluta welcomed some of USA Hockey's first sled hockey player camps to the ice arena.
"Four years ago they asked me if I would coach one of the teams at the camp, and I said, 'Absolutely, I would love to.' '' Maluta said. "That evolved into seeing if I would be interested in coaching the national team. It's a big time commitment, but my boss said it would be OK. They felt it's an extension of what I was already doing, so they gave me the blessing and the rest is history."
In just four short years, the 55-year-old Maluta has become one of the sport's top promoters.
"I went from having no experience whatsoever in sled hockey to giving a Level 5 coaching certification presentation last month in St. Paul on the differences between coaching able-bodied and sled teams," Maluta said.
"My feeling is that I treat the people no different than any other person I've coached in my 28 years of coaching. I have not changed one bit in how I deal with discipline or treating people, on either type of team. At the end of the day, we're educators and teachers, and the teachers do well in the coaching profession."
Maluta found the nuances of the sled game easy to adapt to on the chalkboard.
"Because you can't skate backwards, you can get trapped a lot easier," he said. "You're careful in that regard. We play a very aggressive game. We're a puck-possession, fast, aggressive team. We try to force errors."
Maluta, he will have you know, is well aware of the errors that can be made on a sled. Maluta owns a sled, and saddles up during beginner clinics that he provides in Rochester and Buffalo.
"I've been in it probably 10-15 times," he said. "I have yet to be out there with my team. They'll kick the snot out of me. I'm not ready for them yet. Sometime this winter, they'll get a shot at me. It's only fair that they get a shot at me after all I've put them through."
And if they can laugh about Maluta's sled debut while admiring the gold medals around their necks in Vancouver, it'll be a story to be cherished.
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Dave McMahon is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.