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U.S. National Sled Hockey team tryouts held at Northtown Center

Earlier this year it was announced that the nearly completed HARBORCENTER would be the host of two world hockey events.

Not only will the will the 2015 Under-18 Women’s World Championship take place in Buffalo, but so will the Men’s IPC Sledge Hockey World Championships.

The U.S. National Sled Hockey team has developed strong roots in Western New York over the past several years, as the team’s home was the ESL Center in Rochester from 2008 to 2011. The Northtown Center in Amherst has been one of the homes of the team since 2012 and held the tryouts for the 2014-15 National team this past weekend.

“Obviously in Buffalo we are treated great,” said U.S. National Team general manager Dan Brennan. “Buffalo and Charlotte are our two homes when it comes to the national team. The other thing and it’s very smart on behalf of the host to have it in Buffalo because being so close to the Canadian border and Team Canada being such a strong team, you’ll be able to get more fans into the event. So it makes sense all around. Buffalo is a great hockey city, it always has been.”

The history of the U.S. Sled Hockey team is an intriguing one, as it did not take part in the first Paralympics in 1994 and finished dead last in the 1998 Nagano Games.

The U.S. has quickly become one of the most dominant nations in the world, taking gold in three of the last four Paralympics, and became the first country to win back-to-back gold medals this past March in Sochi.

The team that will take the ice in Buffalo in April will be a revamped one, as the U.S. has lost five players from the 2014 Sochi team, including two-time Paralympic captain Andy Yohe and assistant captain Taylor Chace. However, the team does return coach Jeff Sauer, who also happens to have won two NCAA Championships with the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team.

“We’ve got a lot of speed and we’re young,” Sauer said of this year’s team. “The nucleus of our really talented players is going to continue to improve and get better. With the coaching and systems that we can use because of the talent we have, we think we can continue to get better each year.”

Despite its losses, the team will return several star players that include a handful of former military veterans that became disabled during active duty in Afghanistan or Iraq, most of whom are double-amputees that tend to be quicker and maneuverable.

The 2014 Sochi team had four veterans on the roster, including Buffalo native Paul Schaus and 2014 Pat Tillman Award Winner Josh Sweeney, both of whom will be returning this year.

“We do have more double [amputees] on our team,” said Brennan. “Sometimes they move better, sometimes they don’t. I hate to say it, but it’s a unique advantage that we have with so many military guys coming back with some type of injury.”

One of the veterans that has been on a meteoric rise since joining the team in 2011 is Sweeney, a current resident of Portland, Ore., became a double-amputee after stepping on an improvised explosive device while serving with the U.S. Marine Corps in Afghanistan in 2009.

Sweeney, a former ‘stand-up’ hockey player while growing up in Arizona, took up sled hockey in 2010 and quickly became one of the top players in the world. He also became one of the leaders on the team, as an assistant captain in Sochi, and scored the only goal in the gold medal game against Russia.

“I don’t so much look at things as problems anymore, I just try to figure out a solution to whatever it is that I’m having trouble with,” said Sweeney. “If I hadn’t picked up sled hockey, I probably wouldn’t have the mental or physical strength that I have now. I think that sled hockey has really saved my life in terms of being me again.”

His line-mates in Sochi were fellow veterans, including Schaus, who also became a double-amputee after stepping on an IED while serving with the Marines in Afghanistan.

The 25-year-old Buffalo resident has overcome several injuries not only to his legs, but the loss of a finger and several skin grafts, to become one of the top players in the country.

“Paul is an extremely valuable player on our team,” Brennan said of Schaus. “He plays the game with zero fear. With one of his hands, we have really tried to work on him hanging onto his stick. When he can hold onto both of his sticks he can be a very dominant player. He works his tail off when he’s out there. He’s probably the most improved kid we’ve over the last two years.”

Another Western New York native that has become a mainstay on the national team is Adam Page of Lancaster, who at 22 is already a two-time gold medalist and an eight-year veteran on the national team.

Page, who tied for the team lead in goals at the Paralympics with three, is looking forward to playing a major international tournament in his hometown and in front of his friends and family.

“It’s definitely a great opportunity to have,” said Page. “Most of my friends and family have never seen me play at that high of a level with all of the countries that are coming. It’s definitely special to play for your country and do it in your hometown.”

The U.S. will also return the Paralympic MVP in 16-year-old Tampa native Declan Farmer, who won an ESPY as the Disabled Athlete of the Year.

Farmer led the U.S. in scoring with three goals and two assists, including two goals and an assist over rival Canada in the semifinals, is still improving.

“I watch a lot of hockey,” said Farmer. “I’m a big NHL fan and I watch old sled hockey games on YouTube. I watch some of the top players in the world to see what they do to see how I do those things and get better.”

The U.S. also returns its goaltender, Steve Cash, who has let in just two goals in 12 Paralympic appearances dating back to 2006. He also has recorded 27 international shutouts.

The 2015 World Sledge Hockey Championship will take place at the HARBORCENTER from April 24 to May 2, 2015.


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