Having played in three Paralympic Winter Games, with a fourth on the way, Steve Cash has seen just about everything in international sled hockey.
Cash has been in net for Team USA through Paralympic gold-medal efforts in Vancouver and Sochi, and he was a backup goalie in Torino as the U.S. took home the bronze medal. Looking back, he described the growth in his sport akin to going from “amateurs to professionals” in the decade-plus he’s played for Team USA.
“I’ll give you an idea of how it was a decade ago,” Cash said in September at the Team USA Media Summit in Park City, Utah. “If I were to tell someone I played sled hockey and I played in the Paralympics, they would tell their friend, ‘Oh this gentleman plays in the Special Olympics.’”
The 28-year-old Missouri native has played sled hockey for nearly half his life, starting in 2004 with his hometown DASA St. Louis Blues. Just one year later he made the national team, and just one year after that he was on the bench at the Paralympic Winter Games.
Since then, in addition to the Paralympic hardware, Cash has backstopped Team USA to six world championships medals, three of them gold. His perfect 5-0-0-0 record in 2015 was a tournament first. But those sorts of achievements aren’t what keep Cash coming back to the team, although he did admit that getting a gold medal draped around his neck “doesn’t hurt.”
“Definitely the family dynamic keeps me coming back,” Cash said. “For the four months that we take off throughout the year, I’m always yearning to get back to it. Of course I do my training and I skate when I can during the summer months, but what I’m most looking forward to is getting back and catching up with everybody, and then keeping the motor going on the train.”
Cash was diagnosed with bone cancer in his right knee at just 3 years old, which required amputation. Unlike some members of the team that came to sled hockey later in life, Cash grew up with the sport and has valued that locker room camaraderie from the very beginning.
“The biggest part is that camaraderie,” Cash said. “To me there’s a feeling of nostalgia to it because when I first started, growing up with a disability I wasn’t always included, and hockey definitely provided that outlet for me to be included and feel like I actually belonged and that I could do something with my life. So there’s a multitude of things that go into it, but being around the guys is definitely my biggest thing.”
Cash’s career has taken him all over the world — he said the “coolest” spot thus far is Sochi — and before he and Team USA head to PyeongChang, they are taking part in the World Sled Hockey Challenge, which continues through Dec. 9 in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. This is Cash’s third trip to PEI for the Challenge, and he said he was most looking forward to getting some of their “dynamite” lobster.
The Challenge features the U.S., Canada, Italy and South Korea. In its first two games, Team USA shut out Korea, 8-0, and Italy, 10-0. While Canada is a traditional power, Cash has seen the rest of the world start to catch up. It’s another area that he’s seen the sport grow.
“It’s not so much us and Canada anymore,” Cash said. “You’ve got up-and-coming teams; Korea’s going to be looking for one of those spots just like we are. But I think that you can’t really pick one or two teams that are gonna be up there. It’s gonna be a battle, and we kinda know what we’re in for, but at the same time, we don’t. It’s anyone’s game, I feel like.”
Though Cash might have the most Paralympic experience on the national team, he’s still a young man, even though he now balances the responsibility of a full-time job in finance in addition to being an international hockey player. Doing both has proven to be an adjustment.
“I’ll let you know when I figure it out,” Cash joked. “But to me, there’s not so much of a fine line between finding the free time to prepare and train and put in that work and actually doing the extra work. To me, the early mornings and the late nights in the gym aren’t necessarily a burden, it’s something that I love to do, and if I didn’t love to do it then what would be the point?”
Of all his medals and trophies, there’s one memory that stands out above the rest.
“It would have to be after 2010 just winning that gold medal,” Cash said. “(I) wasn’t sure what to expect, but as a goaltender, you’re watching everybody kind of flock from the bench to you, and you’re just waiting for the train wreck of emotions to hit you, and then all the bodies pile up.
“So just to have that as the initial memory of winning gold is something that I can keep in my back pocket for years to come.”
Todd Kortemeier is a sportswriter, editor and children’s book author from Minneapolis. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.