AMHERST, N.Y. – When his team needed him, and you can even say, when his country needed him, Josh Sweeney has always been there for them.
He proved as much back in 2009, when as a Marine Corps sergeant, he lost both of his legs to a land mine while serving in Afghanistan.
And Sweeney, a Purple Heart recipient, answered the call again last March, when he seized the moment during the gold-medal game against Russia at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games and scored a goal — the game’s only goal — that lifted the United States to its second consecutive sled hockey championship. It was the first time any country has defended a Paralympic sled hockey title.
In the process, Sweeney, 27, has become a recognizable face of a sport that is edging its way out of the shadows and taking a more appropriate place in the public mind.
“Now when I tell people I play sled hockey,” he said, “there’s a 50 percent chance that they’ll know what I’m talking about. Before, it was zero to 20 percent. It’s great to be able to have it as a recognized sport. We’ll get a lot more individuals coming out because of it.”
Sweeney, who is retired from the Marines, will bring even more honor to the sport on Wednesday when he will receive the inaugural Pat Tillman Award for Service at the 2014 ESPYS.
“He’s a great guy,” said Josh Pauls, Sweeney’s Paralympic teammate. “To have him serve our country, and now come and represent it in a different way. In sled hockey, he’s a great motivator, he’s a great teammate. And he’s a great person. To see that pay off, it’s great to see.”
Since being named to the national team in 2011, Sweeney, who will likely soon be named the team’s next captain (to succeed the retired Andy Yohe), has brought a heaping portion of Marine swagger to the club, particularly on the ice.
“He’s not a vocal guy in the locker room,” said U.S. coach Jeff Sauer. “He’s not an Andy Yohe. But he has leadership on the ice. He can do things on the ice and show other people.”
What Sweeney showed his mates, and the world, for that matter, on March 15 in Sochi, was utterly electrifying.
With tension building in what was still a scoreless gold-medal tilt late in the second period, Sweeney forced a neutral zone turnover, then roared in alone on Russian goaltender Vladimir Kamantcev.
He got to the edge of the crease before sniping his shot in under the crossbar for what turned out to be a goal most golden.
“It was cool that it was Sweeney who got that goal,” Pauls said. “It was a team effort. Sweeney didn’t do everything. But it was really great to see him be the guy who scored that goal.”
That act was something of a sacrifice, as Sweeney and his “All Military” linemates Rico Roman, retired U.S. Army, and fellow retired Marine Paul Schaus - nicknamed the "Bravo Delta Line" were supposed to come off after having skated an exhausting shift.
But when Sweeney made the strip, it was time to put Plan B into effect.
“If I had gone off,” he said, “they could have easily carried the puck up the left hand side.
“But I went into autopilot and let my muscle memory do its thing. It was like, ‘Alright, here we go. This is our chance.’”
You could say that he went above and beyond the call of duty.
But then again, you’ll get nothing less from Josh Sweeney.Dan Hickling is a freelance writer and photographer based in Buffalo, New York. Over a 20-year career, he has covered hockey at all levels from the NHL to junior, and is a longtime member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.