The U.S. sled hockey team ended 2016 by becoming the first program to win three consecutive championships at the World Sled Hockey Challenge.
For Team USA, the win was also the program’s sixth consecutive international tournament title dating back to the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games. Arguably, no team in Paralympic sport has been as dominant over the last two years as the U.S. sled hockey program. So what makes these guys the ultimate team? The players credit their unbelievable team chemistry.
“The team chemistry since I joined a decade ago has increased tenfold,” three-time Paralympic goaltender Steve Cash said. “It’s not to say we didn’t have some chemistry back then, but now you’ll see 17 guys working in true harmony, and back then there was a little disparity between the two groups — veterans and young guys. That cohesion is something we don’t take for granted, and without it we wouldn’t be the kind of team that we are right now.”
Whereas Canada, Norway and Korea strained to keep their young players on par with their veterans throughout the World Sled Hockey Challenge, the Americans relied on their youth to power them to the top once again.
In Prince Edward Island, Canada, earlier this month, Team USA took total control of the tournament, outscoring its opponents 27-4 over five games, with 19-year-old Declan Farmer and 18-year-old Brody Roybal combining for 13 of those goals.
The top line of Farmer, Roybal and Kevin McKee — formed shortly after the Sochi Games, when Josh Pauls shifted to defense — has been playing together for nearly three years and now functions like clockwork. Some U.S. players, such as Cash, and former U.S. player Taylor Lipsett, are even deeming the trio the best line to have ever played the game.
“I think we’ve just grown up a lot,” Roybal said. “In Sochi, we were only 15 years old. Just growing up, getting bigger and the experience of being on the team for three years now has brought us to a whole other level.”
By no means did Team USA coast its way through another World Sled Hockey Challenge, though. The first couple practices were “rough” according to Cash, and it took an overtime period for Team USA to beat Canada 2-1 in the preliminary round.
“At the beginning of the tournament, it felt like it took us a little longer to get settled in, but once we did we got rolling,” said Cash, who backstopped the winning side for three of the team’s games, allowing just three scores and posting a 0.921 save percentage. “The more we worked together, the more chemistry we built.”
In the championship game, Team USA found itself down 1-0 during the first intermission thanks to a goal by Canada’s dual-sport athlete Liam Hickey. U.S. coach Jeff Sauer entered the locker room and told every player to look at the teammate to the right, to the left and across the room, and to remember who they were all representing when they returned to the ice.
Sauer certainly righted the ship.
The U.S. team erupted for five goals in the second period, outshooting Canada 10-2, with Roybal scoring two of those goals and Farmer another one to help the Americans claim the 5-2 victory.
Farmer finished the tournament as the leading scorer for the third straight World Sled Hockey Challenge. His 17 points were a new record for the most points by a U.S. player in a single World Sled Hockey Challenge, and his eight goals tied Nikko Landeros for the most goals in a single edition of the tournament.
At this point, with four months to go until the next world championships and just over a year until the next Paralympics, Sauer has just one critique for his top line.
“We don’t shoot the puck enough, as we’re always trying to go for that picture-perfect goal,” Roybal said. “He says we always like to try to be too fancy out there. The one critique he gives us is to just put the puck on the net, because you never know what could happen.”
Just imagine if Roybal and Farmer shot the puck more.
The U.S. sled hockey team — the reigning Paralympic, world and Pan Pacific champions — could be even more dangerous.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.