Rico Roman
Rico Roman, a U.S. Army veteran who was injured in Iraq, made his Paralympic Winter Games debut against Italy on March 8.

Bring it on, Russia

BY RICO ROMAN

If you’ve ever watched sled hockey, you know the players don’t take it easy on each other. The fans don’t either, especially in Canada. We’ve played in some hostile environments north of the border — and seen some pretty funny signs.

Still, the atmosphere when we play Russia today on their home ice in the Paralympics is going to be unlike anything I’ve ever played in.

And to that I say bring it.

We hope the arena is sold out and we hope the fans are loud. We feed on that energy. If anything, their support is fuel for the fire. It’s just going to make us play better. This is what it’s all about.

As a team, we don’t overlook anybody. There are a lot of teams that could win the gold medal in Sochi. And I love playing all of them. I love hearing the different languages. I love the different styles of play. Still, of everyone out there, Russia might be my favorite team to play.

I think they’ve only been together the last three or four years, but they've made big gains in that amount of time. I'm really proud that they've come so far so fast. That said, I don't want to give them fuel for the fire, but we’re not buddies on the ice.

We’ve played them at a couple of world championships games and a couple of club games. They come from a big hockey country, so they are a pretty good hockey team. They’ve also got some big guys.

The best part about playing Russia, though, is the dynamic between our teams. You give it 110 percent on the ice, but off the ice it doesn’t mean you can shake hands and be gentlemen. I was even talking some trash back and forth with one of their players on Twitter. It was great to see him later on the ice. It’s all fun and games, no hard feelings, and that’s what I like about playing against guys like that. Some of the teams aren’t like that.

That said, there are eight teams in this tournament, and we aren’t overlooking any of them. Canada won the last world championship in 2013. Japan won the Paralympic silver medal in 2010. Korea and Norway are right up there too. And, of course, Russia is on the rise and on home ice.

We have one of the younger teams in the tournament — we might even be the youngest team — so we will rely on our speed to beat these teams. I think we’re one of the fastest teams out there, and being on a bigger sheet of ice only helps us use that speed.

Winning a gold medal will take more than that, though. Like my coach always jokes, hockey is a game of mistakes. I think if we make the least amount of mistakes and capitalize on their mistakes — and if we can put the puck in the net! — then we will come out win the gold medal.

My mom, my wife, and my two kids are joining me in Sochi, and so is a group from Operation Comfort, an organization that helps disabled veterans get into adaptive sports and that supported me throughout my whole journey in sled hockey. It will be good to have them in the stands supporting us tonight.

They’re all staying in a hotel somewhere in Sochi, while I’m in a dorm in the athletes’ village, and they’re taking in the whole Paralympic experience. As players, we get to see our families and friends a bit. But I’ve already given them a heads up that this is not a vacation. I’m here for a reason, and that’s to get a gold medal.

Watch us play Russia on NBCSN or TeamUSA.org