Hosts With The Most

Buoyed By The Home Crowd, U.S. Sled Team Puts Golden Cap On Perfect Season

Located on the corner of Washington and Scott Streets, just a stone’s throw from the First Niagara Center, the home of the Buffalo Sabres, sits 716 Food and Sports, a sports bar and restaurant.

Boasting one of the largest television screens in North America, it is a popular destination for local sports fans on most nights of the week. But on what was hailed as the greatest weekend in sports history, it was standing room only in early May as patrons jockeyed for position to watch everything from a triple crown horse race to a mega-million dollar prize fight.

Towering six floors above the noise and the nachos, the newly constructed HarborCenter was also playing host to an event that featured all the speed of the Kentucky Derby while packing more punch than the Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao boxing match.

The U.S. and Canada slugged it out for three intense rounds in a battle for sled hockey supremacy in the gold-medal game at the 2015 IPC World Sled Hockey Championships. And when the final bell sounded, it was the hosts who came out on top with a 3-0 victory to take home their third 
World Championship title.

It also capped a remarkable year in which the U.S. went undefeated for the first time with a 12-1-0-0 (W-OTW-OTL-L) record, while outscoring its opponents 59 to 6.

But more than just the coronation of another sled hockey world champion, this North American showdown was a showcase for a sport that continues to gain new fans who marvel at the speed, the skill and the ferocity with which the game is played.

The gold-medal game was not only broadcast in prime time to a national television audience, it was played in front of a sellout crowd of 1,598 at the HarborCenter, which marked the largest crowd to see a sled hockey game on home ice since the gold-medal game of the 2002 Paralympics in Salt Lake City.

“The crowd was super loud. You get high off of everyone screaming and cheering you on,” said Nikko Landeros, one of 11 holdovers from the gold-medal winning team at the 2014 Paralympics.

The play of terrific teens Declan Farmer (16) and Brody Roybal (4) helped pace the U.S. National Sled Team to an undefeated season.The play of terrific teens Declan Farmer (16) and Brody Roybal (4) helped pace the U.S. National Sled Team to an undefeated season.

Over the years the U.S. Sled Team has enjoyed the backing of family and friends, who travel to the ends of the earth to support the red, white and blue. But that small pocket of support can often be drowned out in a building packed with those cheering for the opposition. So having a raucous crowd behind them in Buffalo brought added incentive to a team that is already the class of the sled
hockey world.

“It gives you that extra little boost to get up in the morning and get ready to go play,” said Josh Pauls, who was named the tournament’s top defenseman.

“Even if you have a bad shift and they’re chanting U-S-A, it just makes you want to get back out there and go crush someone or put the puck in the net or do something good.”

USA Hockey brought the event to the shores of Lake Erie because of its long-time relationship with the Sabres and a belief that the local hockey community would support an event that has historically been held with little fanfare. And true to form, both the Sabres and the city didn’t disappoint.

It helped that two of the U.S. players, Adam Page and Paul Schaus, had ties to the community. And both gave their supporters plenty to cheer about as Page led the U.S. in points while Schaus was at his physical best while chipping in a pair of timely goals.

“The whole tournament I was just focused on my game and went and had fun with it the entire week,” said Page, who was front and center with local media throughout the tournament. “It was really a great week for me, but I couldn’t have done it without my linemates, too, so hats off to them.”

From the drop of the puck against Russia in the tournament opener until the final buzzer signaled the end of the title game, the fans gave the U.S. players something that means as much as the gold medal hanging around their neck. They gave them the respect that is given to any athlete who wears the red, white and blue on the international arena.

“These guys normally don’t play in front of a lot of fans, and we haven’t had a lot of home games over the course of time. But this is a great crowd and it was a great atmosphere,” said U.S. Head Coach Jeff Sauer.

“We sold the sport today, both in Canada and the U.S. It’s great that so many people had the opportunity to see these athletes perform. I thought they did an excellent job today. Both teams played hard, they played well, and you can sell tickets to this game today.”

As one of only two players on this year’s squad who played in the World Championships the last time they were held in the U.S. in 2008, goaltender Steve Cash said the week was just another example of how far the sport has come in such a relatively short amount of time.

“It just shows the huge potential the sport has,” said Cash, who backstopped the U.S. to a third World Championship title in addition to a pair of Paralympic gold medals.

“Since I first started playing in 2005 my family was struggling to find streams of the Torino Games in 2006, and just to see it go from little tidbits here and there on the computer to having it played live on network TV in the middle of a Sunday is great.”

Thanks to the support from the local community, and the national television coverage, there is a new legion of sled hockey fans around the country. And where once they toiled in relative anonymity, now names like Cash, Farmer, Roybal and Landeros are quickly becoming household names with USA Hockey fans everywhere.

It also gives future generations of disabled athletes the chance to dream that wearing the red, white and blue and hearing the U-S-A chant echoing around the rink is a reachable goal.

“To win a World Championship on home soil is special, and I can definitely say that I’ll look back in a few years and say that people were able to live it through us,” Cash said.

“A lot of time in the past we’ve won big games like this in other countries. The fact that fans got to come out and support us and see us come out on top makes it a great feeling.”

 

Issue: 
2015-06

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