SOCHI – The Olympic Park at the Black Sea lightened up again in March for the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in which Team USA defended its gold medal in ice sledge hockey against the sensational Russian newcomers.
Shayba Arena, the venue where most women’s ice hockey games and several men’s ice hockey games of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games were held, was the stage for the Paralympic ice sledge hockey tournament.
Like the Olympians, the Paralympic athletes had a good time at the Black Sea resort and enjoyed the smooth organization and smiles from the volunteers in Sochi in several sports developed for handicapped athletes.
The athletes competed in five sports in the Coastal and Mountain Clusters including ice sledge hockey. It’s a variant of ice hockey based on the IIHF Rule Book with a few modification that allows players with a lower-body disability to play hockey on ice. They play with a metal sled on blades and two sticks to help them move and handle the puck.
The sport, created in the ‘60s, is played in three periods of 15 minutes each and has become a popular winter sport in the Paralympic Games after its premiere in Lillehammer 1994.
For those who haven’t played it, it’s hard to imagine how much energy and power it needs to be able to compete. A sledge hockey match usually includes hard work for only few shots, low scores and tight games.
While host nation Russia dominated the Paralympic medal ranking with 80 medals including 30 golds, it was the Americans who defended their title in the Paralympic ice sledge hockey tournament.
Four years ago in Vancouver, Team USA won all games and didn’t concede a single goal. This time it was tighter and the Americans were beaten by the host nation Russia 2-1 in the Preliminary Round that included eight teams who qualified for the event split into two groups.
The teams met again in the gold medal game after USA, coached by Jeff Sauer who has worked on Disciplinary Panels at several IIHF tournaments, beat Canada 3-0 in the semi-finals and Russia blanked Norway 4-0.
In the final U.S. forward Josh Sweeney scored the lone goal in a tense game as USA became the first team to win back-to-back Paralympic Winter Games sledge hockey titles with a 1-0 win over Russia.
Sweeney, who earned a Purple Heart for military service to his country, has now earned another medal, this one gold.
In a game between two evenly matched teams that featured just 10 total shots on goal, it was always going to come down to one mistake, and it came in the second period, when defenceman Alexei Lysov turned over the puck to Sweeney in the Russia zone. The forward calmly moved in on goal, drifted right and waited for goalie Vladimir Kamentsev to go down before lifting into the top of the net.
The goal muted the crowd of 6,825 fans in the almost full Shayba Arena momentarily, but chants for the hosts quickly began again before play restarted.
As the final buzzer of the tournament sounded, the Americans tackled each other in a heap around goalie Steve Cash, hugging on their end of the ice as the Russians gave each other a well-earned congratulations. The crowd showed its appreciation for both teams well after the game was over.
“It’s an amazing feeling to win with such a great group of men. We all came together collectively as a unit and trusted each other and that's what got it done at the end,” said Team USA’s Taylor Chace. “Russia is a fast and physical team so we had to match that. You want to be able to make a presence out there as a hockey team and we did that.”
For the Russians it was a loss but they won hearts in their first ever Paralympics. Vadim Selyukin remembers the start five years ago and can be proud of his team’s achievement despite the loss.
“We were losing to everybody in the beginning. We started from zero, then we worked a lot, every day with the clubs or the national team, and we started to win a little and got into the Paralympics,” the Russian said. “We did everything we could. Maybe we could have done a little more but it seems our time has not come yet. We're going to forget this loss and go forward. With such an attitude to our sport, we will dominate. That’s for certain.”
Canada beat Norway 3-0 in the bronze medal game to avenge for the bronze medal game loss on home ice in Vancouver 2010. The loss snapped Norway’s streak of winning a medal at every Paralympic Winter Games since the sport’s debut at Lillehammer in 1994.
With the final game top-level hockey comes to an end for this season in Sochi but the legacy shall continue. The bigger Bolshoy Ice Dome will be used as a multifunctional venue, the Shayba Arena for a new KHL team in Sochi and the training facilities for hockey schools and camps with participants from all over Russia.
1. United States
5. Czech Republic
– with files from the Paralympic News Service