When Josh Pauls tried sled hockey for the first time, it took just five minutes for the 9-year-old to form an opinion on the sport he had never heard of before. He hated it.
After seeing a game between a sled hockey team and a local able-bodied team that played on sleds, Pauls decided to give the sport a chance. He quickly realized it wasn’t the same as the NHL games he watched with his family.
“I'm not standing up and playing,” Pauls remembered thinking. “This isn't hockey.”
Less than a year later, a sled hockey team formed near Pauls’ Green Brook, New Jersey, home. He decided to try the sport again, this time without his prosthetics, which removed extra weight and gave Pauls a sense of freedom on the ice.
“Everything was on an even playing field,” said Pauls’ dad, Tony. “He saw that as, 'OK, now they are the same as me. Now let's see what I can do.'”
At the last two Paralympic Winter Games, Pauls, a defenseman, won gold medals with Team USA. As he heads into his third Games, Pauls has gone from being the youngest member of the 2010 team to being the captain of the 2018 squad.
Pauls made his national team debut in 2008, and he remembers having “a really great view for most games” — the bench. But he watched how his older teammates, such as Steve Cash and Andy Yohe, trained and interacted with each other.
“I think to have him on the team in the future, it'll help instill that motivation and that drive in a lot of other players, while also bringing a lighthearted aspect to the team,” said Cash, who is also on the U.S. team for PyeongChang, playing at his fourth Games.
Pauls was born without tibia bones and had his legs amputated at the knee when he was 10 months old. In addition to his sled hockey teammates helping to mold him as a player and person, Pauls said he gained a “dark sense of humor” from them.
Pauls sometimes will ask a flight attendant for help getting his belongings from the overhead compartment, Cash said, forcing the attendant to respond, “There are only legs up here.”
Toward the end of high school, Pauls said he had a mentality switch. Suddenly — and he’s not sure why — he became comfortable with his disability.
“If something is going to happen and I'm going to be stuck with it,” said Pauls, who wears shorts in the winter for the fun of it, “I might as well have a good time doing it.”
After moving to the St. Louis area to attend Lindenwood University, Pauls began to coach ice hockey at a nearby high school, calling it his “one avenue into able-bodied hockey.” Pauls said he could see himself one day having a technical role coaching ice hockey at an advanced level, joking that he shouldn’t be the one teaching beginners the sport since he’s never had to learn to skate.
For now, Pauls works in sales for a finance company, which he enjoys. But ultimately he’d like a full-time career in coaching, maybe even for an NHL team.
He has served as a mentor coach at U.S. sled hockey development camps. But because of the number of opportunities coaching able-bodied ice hockey, Pauls sees that as the more realistic route. Still, sled hockey, the sport Pauls at first resented, will remain part of his life.
He plays on a sled hockey club team in St. Louis that faces able-bodied teams on sleds, aiming to grow the Paralympic sport at a grassroots level.
“You've always got to remember where you come from,” Pauls said. “I'll still always make sure that I have time to at least give some of my time to sled hockey because it's made me who I am.”
Emily Giambalvo is a student in the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is part of TeamUSA.org’s coverage team for the PyeongChang Games.