The 2002 U.S. sled hockey team poses for a team photo.
The former Boston Bruins great walked down an alleyway from his hotel in Tampa, Florida, at 5 a.m., looked ahead, and couldn’t quite believe his eyes.
“I turned the corner, and I remember seeing down the street the silhouettes under the streetlamps, a couple of wheelchairs rolling down the middle of the street,” recalled Rick Middleton. “My first thought was, ‘Boy, these guys are dedicated.’ I had no clue how long it takes these guys to get ready and in their sleds.”
Middleton was on his way to his first training camp with members of the U.S. sled hockey team as their new head coach. They had a 6 a.m. training session at the local arena. Already having made his name in hockey as a player over 14 seasons in the NHL, 12 as a Bruin, Middleton had taken over the U.S. team when the previous coach quit after the world championships.
“I didn’t know that brand of hockey,” Middleton recalled. “I didn’t even know what sled hockey was.”
Middleton was taking control of a team that had finished sixth of seven teams in the previous Paralympic Games, and dead last at the previous world championships in 2000. The U.S. only qualified for the Paralympic Winter Games Salt Lake 2002 because it was the host team.
“I thought it was going to be a challenge,” said Middleton, who had never played in the Olympics. “I wanted to experience it.”
Because of what Middleton and his players accomplished in 2002, on June 24 — two decades later — they will become the first Paralympic team inducted into the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame.
“It’s awesome,” Middleton said. “We’re hoping that every guy can make it.”
That 2002 group earned that recognition after going undefeated in Salt Lake City to win the gold medal, the first for the U.S. in the sport. Since then, the Americans have become the bona fide power in sled hockey, having now won four straight Paralympic gold medals. The foundation for all that success was laid by Middleton’s team.
As Middleton recalled assistant coach Tommy Moulton saying: “We were the spark that lit the fire.”
Those early days weren’t easy, however. It was a learning experience for Middleton, who recalled warming up his players in that first practice.
“I yelled, ‘backwards,’ and they all stopped and looked at me. They don’t go backwards,” Middleton said, laughing. “It was pretty funny.”
Only a handful of players had returned from the previous Games, so Middleton had to build the 2002 team from the ground up.
“They didn’t have a system,” Middleton said. “We decided we had to teach them some sort of a system in a very short time that wouldn’t be so complicated that they could get it because we had different levels … of players on the team.
“I just put in an old Don Cherry system. If you don’t get the puck down low, you’re not going to score. It’s an old system that worked pretty well. It obviously worked. The system works.”
Once he got acclimated, Middleton treated the guys no differently than other hockey players.
“I didn’t think it would be much different than able-bodied hockey, and it wasn’t,” he said. “These guys are as passionate about the game of hockey as any professional NHL player today.”