Written by Peter Quartuccio
photos by Carter Farmer
Before a somewhat spiteful Canadian crowd, many of whom were playing the part of “Japan fan for the day” thanks to their team’s ignominious early exit, Team USA’s sled hockey team took home the Gold Medal in a 2-0 victory over Team Japan. The U.S. were on enemy soil, and they faced a team that was fast, dangerous, and hot off their country’s biggest sled hockey win on the Paralympic stage. Team Japan made it clear from the onset that they were not merely satisfied with beating Canada and content with a Silver. Team USA was made to earn their Gold Medal against Japan, whose quickness and tenacity were made most evident in the 3rd period. American goalie Steve Cash could not merely rely on his defense in order to gain the win. In previous games, his defensemen often dispatched of potential scoring threats before they were anywhere near the net, but in the final period, “Money”—a nickname he received thanks to his consistently clutch play—was under attack consistently. Japan’s shots, while not always on goal, were continuous, and were it not for some terrific saves, the game might have had a vastly different outcome. Team USA needed their goalie to stand on his head, and that’s exactly what Cash did, stopping all of the shots he faced—including a potentially momentum shifting penalty shot—and extending his streak to 210 consecutive minutes without allowing a goal. The U.S. Sled Hockey team did not trail in any of their five games, and did not allow a goal throughout the competition, a truly amazing feat.
Although many viewed Team USA as the favorites, they had to overcome several obstacles. Firstly, they are a very young team, with only four players over the age of 25. This kind of youth gives the team an advantage in terms of energy and stamina, but it also lends itself to anxiety and immaturity. Fortunately for the U.S., they reaped all of the benefits of their team’s youth and experienced virtually none of its pitfalls. Another challenge that that Team USA had to overcome was the site of these Paralympic Games. Throughout the competition, Team USA faced a highly partisan crowd. Regardless of who they faced, the U.S. found themselves being cheered against, and this only grew as the Paralympics continued. By the time Canada was knocked out of Medal contention, there was even a small smattering of boos in response to chants of “USA.” This too could have shaken the U.S. players, but it seems that they instead relished their role as the men in the black hats, channeling whatever emotions the crowd elicited onto the ice.
Finally, they faced the ultimate task of achieving expectations. This proved to be no doubt the toughest of their challenges. They started off with a decisive but sloppy and uneven win against Korea, and were not overly impressive in their next game against the Czech Republic. (The titanic effort by Czech goalie Michal Vapenka didn’t help their cause.) The team looked better against Japan, and a crop of Team USA players began to emerge as the go-to consistent performers. Taylor Lipsett and Alexi Salamone had already amassed four and three goals each, respectively, and seemed to ooze confidence as they took their shifts. Similarly, Nikko Landeros and Taylor Chace exhibited the requisite physicality and nastiness present in the best defensemen; they dished out crushing yet clean hits, and they played a huge role in keeping U.S. opponents off the scoreboard throughout the team’s Paralympic run.
After their 6-0 rout of Japan, Team USA took the ice for a Semifinal showdown with Norway that was far and away the biggest test they faced. Earlier that day, Team Japan had shocked the nation by knocking Canada out of Gold Medal contention. Upset was in the air, and uncertainty reigned over the proceedings as the referee dropped the puck, for if Team Canada could lose to Japan, a team that was beaten by six goals the night before, then the defending Silver Medalists Norway could certainly upend the Americans. And as the 1st period progressed, that outcome looked more and more plausible. Team USA seemed tentative and nervous, more fearful of suffering Canada’s fate than focused on playing their brand of hockey. Greg Shaw’s 2nd period goal put an end to that doubt. The importance of his goal cannot be overstated, as the team seemed reborn afterwards. Confident, physical, aggressive, Team USA took over the game, and dashed any thoughts of a premature exit from both the minds of the players and the hopes of Canadians everywhere.
Their Gold Medal winning effort against Team Japan was a triumph of perseverance and confidence, a confidence that never mutated into arrogance as it did with Canada. Team USA knew they belonged atop the Victory Podium, but they did not take it for granted, and they did not crumble when opponents pushed them; they simply pushed back harder. They responded to the expectations of their fans, of their country, and of themselves, and took home the Gold; the other supposed “titan” of the sport did not.
As they were throughout their run in the Paralympics, Japan was all class in defeat. They are perhaps the most widely liked sled hockey team, and the genuineness with which they embraced and expressed congratulations to the Americans showed all why they are held in such high regard. Team Captain Takayuki Endo wept as he received his Silver Medal, and received a richly deserved raucous ovation from the thousands in attendance at the UBC Thunderbird Arena. His team achieved what no other Japanese Paralympic sled hockey squad did, and achieved it the right way: with dedication, pride, and honor. No one can ever question Team Japan. They came into Vancouver a wild card, a long shot at best, and left Silver Medalists. Japan will improve, and Norway, Canada, and the U.S. must now make room for and take notice of a new sled hockey power.
With their victory on Saturday, the United States became the first nation to win two Paralympic Gold Medals in sled hockey, with their first coming in 2002 at the Salt Lake City games. On the ice, they embraced and celebrated, giddy with the thrill of victory. Team USA had overcome all and won Gold. They are back on top, and their 2010 Winter Paralympic run has proved that that’s exactly where they deserve to be.
For more coverage of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Paralympics please visit: http://www.WheelchairSportsFederation.org