Tough Sledding

When I was a kid, my dream was to be an NHL goalie. I don’t know what possessed me to want to get a little rubber disc whipped at me up to 70 miles per hour, but at least when the shots were coming from my dad and my sister, I didn’t have to worry about taking a puck to the face.

Remember those old stand-up NHL goalies from the ’70s and ’80s who rarely ever dropped down to the ice? That was me in the net as a seven year old, trying to block shots from my sister outside our house. But I was doing it out of necessity. I couldn’t exactly drop down to my knees, because on mechanical, prosthetic legs, I wasn’t going to get up very fast.

I was born without tibia bones, resulting in amputation when I was just 10 months old. That never stopped me from playing hockey. My dad and his side of the family are huge New Jersey Devils fans, so, naturally, being a rebel, I became a huge Rangers fan. With two fake legs, I wasn’t exactly equipped to get on a pair of ice skates (trust me, I tried that last summer and it went exactly how you might expect — not great) so I started out by playing in the street on solid ground.

My mom saw how much fun I was having with it, so when I was eight years old she brought home a flier for sled hockey. At first I didn’t think it was for me because I knew it wasn’t the same as when I was watching the Devils on TV. I was a pretty typical eight year old. At that age, I still thought I was going to be the first guy in the NHL without legs. Playing sled would have meant giving up on that dream, and that’s a tough thing when your life is just starting.

After a few more years of putting on those big old leg pads for some street hockey goaltending, a sled team opened up in my area. I was 10 at the time, and my parents pushed me to give it another try. I still wasn’t thrilled, but looking back now I’m glad they did. After giving it another shot, I realized how much I loved the sport. I think I started to understand that maybe I wasn’t going to the NHL, but at least this was a way for me to continue playing hockey. That’s all I wanted to do.

We lost a lot of games at the beginning but I was just starting to find my way in the sport. The first thing I realized was that I had been granted the gift of speed. My coaches told me that I was too fast to be a goalie, so I moved out from between the pipes and onto the open ice where I was free to use my speed. I started out as a defenseman because the mentality was similar to a goalie, but the coaches told me I was even too fast for that so I moved up to forward.

A few years after I started playing in the junior league, I began to show a lot of promise. Since I was one of the only sled hockey players in my area in New Jersey, when I got extra ice time it was usually by myself. That gave me loads of alone time to work on my skating because, honestly, there wasn’t much else to do. Shooting on an empty net wasn’t very productive, and I couldn’t work on passing because there was nobody there to pass to. But I think it was those solo ice sessions, where I worked on technique and endurance, that really helped set me apart.

Three or four years after I started playing sled, I got invited to a developmental camp for USA Hockey. That was the point when I realized I could really go somewhere with this sport. We bounced around different adult tournaments for a few years, just because that was the only competition we had. It was tough to get anyone to come play us internationally because of funding.

In 2009, I got my first big break. I was called up to the World Championship team. I hadn’t even thought to try out because I was 16, and I didn’t think I had any chance of making the squad. I got lucky. They decided to throw me on the team because one of the guys was hurt, but it ended up being my first taste of success. Even though I probably only played two shifts in the gold medal game, we won 1-0. It was amazing to be a part of that. Only eight years after my mom had brought that flier home for the first time, I was a gold medalist.

I was on cloud nine afterwards. I had just won a gold medal and I figured I was a shoe-in to make the team for the Vancouver Paralympics the next year. They had a roster limit of 15, so I went to try out just like everybody else, but in the back of my mind I thought I had it. Maybe I was a little too confident because I ended up getting cut and they sent me back down to the junior national team. I’m not going to sugarcoat it — that really sucked.

On the junior squad I was one of the alternate captains, so I was working hard every day to try to prove myself. And again, I got lucky. One of the guys from the national team retired and they called me back up. They were still making three more cuts, but I’d have the same shot as everybody else. I made the most of it, beating out the other three guys and grabbing the last spot on the Vancouver team. We made history in those Paralympics, winning every game en route to a gold medal, without allowing a single goal.

It was a dominant performance for sure, but there were tense moments on the road to perfection. The semifinal game against Norway was one of those where the final score wasn’t reflective of how hard we fought. We won 3-0, but we gave up 11 shots and we weren’t used to that at all. We had only allowed maybe three or four shots a game up to that point, and they were controlling the tempo from the start. In the locker room after the first period, we knew we had to make a change. Japan had just pulled a crazy upset against Canada, our perennial rivals. Obviously, we loved to see the Canadians lose — no offense to our northern neighbors. But sitting in the locker room at that moment, we realized that upset didn’t matter at all if we couldn’t turn it up against Norway. We went back out and scored our first goal, and then cruised the rest of the way to a victory.

It was weird because I was kind of the baby of the team. I was playing with a group of fully-grown men, and I think that helped me mature a little bit quicker than most other people. I got to see how those guys carried themselves on and off the ice. And of course because I was the young buck, I took some friendly ribbing from the guys as well. Our backup goalie at the time, Mike Blabac, was always giving me tips about shooting. He told me that my shot was so awful that it looked like a wounded duck. It was just flipping all the time. I thought that was pretty poetic, but it also drove me to get better. Now I shoot on him every once in a while at a club tournament and he’s like, “Yeah, I don’t really want to go up against you anymore.”

Playing with guys who were older and stronger than me also meant that I felt a little over matched at times. The physicality of sled hockey is not something to neglect. It’s a really intense, physical sport and hits are probably even more violent than in stand up hockey because we’re so low to the ice. When you’re standing up, the glass gives a little bit when you hit it. But we hit the boards and those don’t give at all. That makes for some pretty bone-crunching hits. Open ice hits are brutal too because our sleds are all metal and aluminum, so they can really cut into you.

Sled is exciting, fast-paced and physical just like stand up hockey, but there are a few technical differences between the sports. Stick handling is unique for us because we have two sticks instead of one. All the best sled hockey players in the world are able to handle with both the right and left hand. I think that really sets us apart. Coach Sauer always tells us that we’re better than Wayne Gretzky and Chris Chelios because they couldn’t stick handle with both hands. I’ll take that compliment. It’s something people don’t expect when they’re watching us, but when you see a guy throw the puck over to the left, still dangle around a guy and then put it top shelf, you can’t help but be impressed.

I’m still in awe watching our goalie, Steve Cash, work his magic in net. He’s probably one of the most agile players on the team because he has to move side to side and go up and down the ice, and that’s true of all sled hockey goalies. It’s absolutely ridiculous, and when I watch him, I think about how smart I was to move out of net. I only really liked it for the cool equipment anyway.

Even though sled hockey isn’t as well known as stand up, I’ve never met a person who watched us play and thought it was a boring sport. As the American audience continues to grow for the NHL, I think we will begin to gain some exposure as well. Right now we’re one of the most watched Paralympic sports, and in Sochi, we were televised on NBC for our gold medal game – which we won, again. That was kind of the point where we figured, Wow, people really want to see us play.

We have the guys who were playing the sport in the early ’90s to thank for that recognition. They were the ones who really lifted this off the ground and got the right people talking about it. Everything just snowballed from there. Now we’re getting respect from the entire hockey community, which is like one big family. I even switched my allegiances to the Devils after they honored me during a game. Tough to hate an organization that classy.

That’s a great feeling of validation, but I think that sometimes the respect we receive from people is misguided. I don’t want to be respected because I’m disabled. That wasn’t a choice, it was a circumstance. My choice was finding a way to play the sport I love in any way possible. A lot of people say we’re inspirational even though we’re just going out and living our lives. Sometimes random people on the street stop me to tell me how awesome I am, and all I’m doing is going to Walmart to buy some off-brand toothpaste. I don’t exactly see how that’s inspirational. I know myself and my teammates would rather be an inspiration just because of what we’ve accomplished, and all the work we’ve put into our sport.

I know I’m different, but it’s my differences that make me unique. I can still do all the same things everyone else can. I cook. I clean. I did chores when my mom told me to even though I always tried to pull the no legs card. And yet still people tell me I’m an inspiration to them. If that happens when I’m with my mom, she’ll usually say, Well you know, he has two gold medals. That’s why you should be inspired by him. I usually have to nudge her under the table to get her to take it down a notch, but I actually think she’s right. We’re not just people in wheelchairs or with fake legs. Sure, I can turn my foot upside down and use it as a cup holder and that sets me apart from other people. But I’d rather be seen as different because I’m an athlete at the top of my game. That’s something that not everybody can say.

In my first year on the USA team, we got together in a huddle after practice. Our trainer put his hand on my head and said “Oh, it kind of feels like a potato.” A couple months later, we did a Secret Santa gag gift thing, and somebody gave me a Mr. Potato Head figure. I’ve always been kind of superstitious, so I started keeping it with me before every game, and I faced it towards the opponent’s locker room. The first time I did it, we won, and I haven’t moved it since. Everybody on the team calls me Spud now. That figurine has quite a few wins in it, but it means more to me than success on the ice. It’s the nickname. It’s the figure. It kind of represents everything about me. I’m just a giant potato trying to play hockey. And I’ve gotten pretty good at it.