Each month, Team USA Awards presented by Dow celebrates outstanding achievements of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes. The U.S. National Sled Hockey Team won Team of the Month for December 2019 after claiming its sixth consecutive gold medal at the Para Hockey Cup. In the team’s Diamond Club feature, presented by Dow, veterans Declan Farmer and Brody Roybal share how the team bonds and stays fresh during long trips.
The U.S. sled hockey team doesn’t have many opportunities to come together, especially during years with no world championships or Paralympic Games. So when the players do, they enjoy not only the games and working toward winning gold but also the times in the hotel, the chance to see some of the sights of their host city and the ability to bond as a team.
“These tournaments are some of my favorite weeks of the year,” said Declan Farmer, a two-time Paralympic gold medalist for Team USA. “It’s so fun to just hang out, play hockey, go hard, practice and hang out with your friends. I love it.”
Having a good routine and making sure they’re doing what they need to in order to recover, rest and stay mentally sharp, especially during a 10-day stretch away from home where they’re playing back-to-back days, is important to the team’s success.
In December, the U.S. won the 2019 Para Hockey Cup for the sixth year in a row and went undefeated at 5-0-0-0 for the third straight year. The accomplishment earned them Best of Decembers honors for Team USA Awards, presented by Dow. The squad defeated Russia, the Czech Republic twice and Canada twice, including 2-1 in the gold-medal game, for the title in Paradise, Newfoundland.
One of the things that’s critical, Brody Roybal said, is making sure to get a good night’s rest and stay hydrated, especially when they have to turn around and play again the following day.
“The games get intense, obviously, so trying to get back and go to bed when you’re all hyped up after a game isn’t always easy,” said Roybal, also a two-time Paralympic champ. “You want to hang out, have fun, whatever, but you really just have to get back to the hotel and try to get as much water in you as possible and get to bed as soon as possible.”
The team has a number of recovery tools at its disposal, Farmer said, including massage and NormaTec sleeves that use compression to massage limbs and reduce inflammation. They also have many of their meals catered when they’re on the road, so team personnel can ensure they’re getting the nutrition they need before and after games.
Another thing that helps prepare them to play at a high level at long tournaments, Farmer said, is the way they practice.
“We practice really hard,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of success as a team, we’re really deep and we have really good players. When we go to a training camp pre-tournament it’s all very fast-paced and really competitive so that alone kind of prepares us for playing back-to-back games. I’ll be more tired after a three-day training camp than the course of back-to-back games in tournaments just because the games are sometimes more drawn out and you’re only skating once a day, where in camp you’re skating twice a day.”
Members of the U.S. men's sled hockey team celebrate winning the 2019 Para Ice Hockey World Championships on May 4, 2019 in Ostrava, Czech Republic.
Ultimately, players have to figure out what works for them as far as establishing routines on the road, and that comes with experience, both Farmer and Roybal said.
“I think every year, every tournament you refine your routine,” Farmer said. “There’s always something to improve.”
The veterans also try to instill that in in the new players by setting an example and just teaching them the culture of the team and the overall discipline that players have on the road.
“When I first made the team at 15 I was playing video games until 3 a.m., then you wake up and you’re exhausted but you’re 15 so you can handle it,” Roybal said. “It feels weird saying I’m getting older, but being 21 now your body feels it a lot more. Really sticking to a routine is huge, trying to wake up at the same time and going to bed relatively early, staying well-rested, hydrated, eating healthy foods and staying focused can be tough on a long trip with the distractions around you but it’s about finding a balance between you’re there for hockey and to win games but also have fun.”
That chance to have fun and bond with one another is as much a key to success as anything else. While in Paradise for the Para Hockey Cup a few of the players visited nearby Signal Hill, where the first transatlantic radio signal was received in 1901, Roybal said, and they also braved the cold to check out the town some and shop for gifts for girlfriends, wives and families. They also went out as a team to a steak and seafood restaurant one night.
Another favorite activity is playing video games — usually NHL on Xbox — and card games.
“Everyone’s really close with each other, there are no cliques or anything like that,” Farmer said. “I’ll hang out with a different mix of people all the time. Maybe six of us will play poker in the afternoon and that night maybe a whole new group will go out to dinner. Everyone just likes hanging out with each other.”