The Spark That Lit The Flame

2002 U.S. Sled Team Honored For Past Accomplishments And Inspiring Future Generations

Manny Guerra has never watched the tape of the gold-medal game of the 2002 Paralympic Winter Games since backstopping Team USA to victory in Salt Lake City. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t replayed the shootout in his head a thousand times.

With the score deadlocked at 3-3 after regulation, the gold medal would come down to a five-player shootout against the reigning Paralympic champions from Norway. Guerra surrendered goals on the first two shots he faced but then stopped the next three to preserve the victory for the U.S.

“On the first two shots [in the 2002 gold-medal shootout] I knew what they were going to do,” recalled Guerra, who was named to tournament’s top goaltender. “I knew that knew that [Rolf Einar] Petersen was going to do his little right to left move and jam me with the front of the sled and I just missed it. And I knew Helge [Bjornstad] was going to do a shoulder fake and I just didn’t react the way I wanted to.” 

Twenty years later, Guerra doesn’t have the same level of confidence when it comes to staring down the top shooters in the game today, sled stars like Brody Roybal and Declan Farmer.

“I would take a hard pass, I’m not going to lie,” Guerra admitted. “They are so crafty. I mean, they’re robots.” 

The game has come a long way since that March 15 night, when a crowd of more than 8,300 packed Salt Lake’s E Center to witness the worst-to-first Cinderella story. It was only four years earlier in Nagano, Japan that the U.S. had its first taste of mainstream international competition, and things did not go well in the Paralympic debut. The U.S. finished sixth out of seven teams, winning once in five games.

If not for a host exemption, the American sledders would never have had the opportunity to pull off their version of the “miracle on ice” and the future of the sport may have looked very different.

Instead, the history making event not only inspired future generations of disabled athletes to move the sport forward, it earned this collection of sled pioneers entrance into the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame as part of the star-studded Class of 2022. Joining the U.S. Sled Team were Olympic icons Michael Phelps, Mia Hamm, Michelle Kwan, Lindsey Vonn and Roger Kingdom, among others. 

“I can’t even believe we’re mentioned in the same sentence. I understand what we did was important and what’s more amazing is how we did it,” Guerra said. 

 

“I can’t even believe we’re mentioned in the same sentence. I understand what we did was important and what’s more amazing is how we did it,” - Guerra

 

 

 

 

Or as four-time Paralympian Joe Howard put it, “I don’t think the best fiction writer in the world could script anything like that.”

Like any good script, this story featured plenty of drama, a little controversy and a dynamic leading man. Filling that role was 14-year NHL star Rick Middleton, who along with friend and fellow coach Tom Moulton admittedly knew almost nothing about sled hockey. What did they know after watching the tapes from Nagano was that this team, like the 1980 squad, was not talented enough to win on talent alone. They needed a system that would suit the skill levels and hockey sense of these players.

“We had a lot of different levels of players from Sylvester Flis and Joe Howard to other guys who just started playing two years ago,” Middleton recalled. “They didn’t always understand hockey because they didn’t all grow up playing hockey, so we had to develop a system that everybody could understand, something that was very simple, but more importantly, they could do without thinking too much because you don’t have time to think out there.”

In the days after the Sept. 1l attacks in 2001 there was little else to do but train. Travel was limited and international travel was out of the question. Far from the glare of any spotlight or attention, the U.S. perfected its system based on something Middleton played with the Bruins under head coach Don Cherry.

“We never had a system. We were just got five guys out there chasing the puck around. Nobody knew how to play their positions. A lot of guys didn’t know hockey. Most guys just found the sport and they thought it was cool and they wanted to play,” said Howard, who grew up playing youth hockey in Brockton, Mass.

“Rick put some structure in and some discipline and made us want to be a team instead of individuals. And that was huge for us.”

Without the benefit of international competition, the U.S. continued to practice and prepare for its coming out party under the glow of the Paralympic flame. It had been four years since most countries had faced the Americans and they were in for a rude awakening.

“Nobody knew how good we were getting except for us,” Howard said. “But it wasn’t a complete surprise that we won some games, but the way that we won some games, especially the gold-medal game, as a team, it wasn’t individual stuff anymore, we were a team solid team this was our miracle and ice. We shocked the world with this.”

Things weren’t always as smooth as a fresh sheet of Zamboni ice. There was infighting, threats of quitting and dissention in the locker room. Still, winning has a way of smoothing the bumps in the road, and the team came together when it mattered most. 

“We had some turmoil on the team but in the end they came together as a Team USA,” Middleton said.

It also ushered in a new era in sled hockey dominance for the U.S. After winning a bronze medal four years later in Torino, Italy, the U.S. would reel off four straight gold medals while expanding the gap with the rest of the sled hockey world. 

Before long the names of Flis, Howard, Guerra and Kip St. Germaine were replaced by a new generation of sled players, names like Roybal, Farmer, Josh Pauls and Steve Cash, who have taken the game to an entirely different level.

“The growth has been phenomenal I think every member of the 2002 team is very proud to see where it’s at now,” said Kip St. Germaine, who is the head coach of National Development Sled Hockey team.

“The skill is incredible, they’re talented, stronger, faster, have a better knowledge of the game. But they’ve worked hard too to get where they’re at and they deserve all the acknowledgements that they’re getting.”

And what’s more, every member of this current generation understands the sacrifices made by those who came before them.

“I've always told everybody, we were the spark that lit the fuse that caused sled hockey in the world today for the United States. It set the tone for everybody else,” Moulton said. “If we didn’t medal, we were told they weren’t going to fund the program anymore. So imagine if that thing just died on the vine. I mean a gold [in 2002], and then a bronze [in 2006] and then four gold medals. The United States owns the sport today.”

Issue: 
2022-07

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