Men on a Mission

Four military members are part of the 2014 U.S. Paralympic sled hockey team and trying to help make history.

After a 2009 motorcycle accident left Jen Lee’s left leg severely wounded, he wasn’t sure if he’d ever serve in the Army, let alone play hockey, again. His leg had to be amputated above the knee. Rehabilitation in San Antonio was rough. Then Lee came across sled hockey. It was a blessing. When the former goaltender heard about the sport from “Operation Comfort,” an organization dedicated to assisting injured U.S. service personnel, he thought it could help his strength.

But it did so much more than that. Besides re-enlisting and serving as an active duty Army sergeant, he’s in Sochi, Russia, this month for the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games. Lee was nominated to the 17-member Paralympic sled hockey team last December. He’s treating this Paralympics like a mission.

It’s pretty much just like saying, you know, hockey is pretty much my primary mission. Well, this is my mission,” says Lee, from San Francisco. “This is the mission that the Army gives me — to go to Sochi, to be selected on the Paralympic roster, to represent them and represent the Army, represent USA and that will be my job, that will be my mission, that will be my goal.”

A Military Look

Lee is one of four military hockey players on the U.S. team, which also includes defenseman Rico Roman (Portland, Ore.) and forwards Paul Schaus (Buffalo, N.Y.) and Josh Sweeney (Phoenix). Roman is an Army veteran, while Schaus and Sweeney served in the Marine Corps.

They’ll help the U.S. try to record history, as it aims to become the first sled hockey team to win back-to-back Paralympic gold. The U.S. defeated Japan, 2-0, in the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics gold-medal game.

For Lee, Schaus and Sweeney, it’s their first experience. They don’t want to let their current teammates or former players down.

“It really is just all about keeping that legacy going of just being that winning team. It really is just we owe it to them to put in as much hard work and come back with that gold medal as they put in 2010,” Sweeney says. “If anything we want to try to do better than they did and come home with that gold, [play] really solid for the guys that aren’t playing anymore because they’re definitely going to be sitting at home watching and wishing they could be there.”

Attention Grabber

A retired Marine sergeant and Purple Heart recipient, Sweeney was injured in 2009 when he stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) in Nowzad, Afghanistan. He lost both of his legs and wounded his left hand and arm. Sweeney had played hockey at Ironwood High School in Phoenix. He thought his hockey career was finished.

But it was hockey, or rather sled hockey, that captured his attention after his injury.

After nearly two years of rehab, Sweeney decided he wanted to get back on the ice. He could still play hockey ­— just a little differently. So he tried out for the San Antonio Rampage sled hockey team in 2011 and made it, joining Roman and Lee.

“I think that’s one of the greatest things about it and that’s what drew me to it straight out of rehab, was that when I was on the ice I wasn’t thinking about all the appointments I was going to have to make and the doctors I was going to have to deal with,” Sweeney says. “All I was thinking about was the sport and how I can get better and just how much fun I was having at the time.”

Full of Skill

But that’s not to say sled hockey isn’t tough.

It’s still just as physical. Players are Velcroed in a sled with skate blades and a center pivot underneath, and athletes move their body by pushing themselves across the ice with two small hockey sticks. 

In fact, Schaus thinks it’s harder than stand-up hockey skill-wise — especially having to handle two sticks while propelling himself with his hands and upper body.

“[That’s] not how it is in regular hockey where you can propel yourself with your lower body and then you can concentrate on stick-handling, passing, shooting with your upper body,” Schaus says. “In sled hockey
you have to do both simultaneously with your upper body. So that’s the biggest thing I think is the difference.”

Lee and Sweeney think sled hockey is more challenging, too.

Before his injury, Lee played goaltender in stand-up hockey. Stopping pucks is very challenging, but he says it’s even tougher without the use of his legs.

“You can’t use that leg to push side-to-side or post-to-post. Not only have you got to have very good hand-eye coordination, but you’ve got to have good core, upper-body strength to move side-to-side to push forward and backwards,” Lee says.

Sweeney acknowledges turning, along with stopping and starting, are more difficult. With shooting, you actually have more options. Instead of just a forehand and backhand, you have two forehands and two backhands.

“So if you become proficient with both hands you can really be an unstoppable force on the ice in sled hockey,” Sweeney says.

But for Sweeney, this experience gives him what he’s dreamed of — the chance to represent his country while playing the sport he loves.

“Being in the military, it’s awesome anytime you can represent your country. You’re kind of brainwashed from the time you join that this is all there is — representing your country. Once you’re injured, it kind of breaks your heart because you don’t think you’re going to be able to do it again,” Sweeney says. “Again, it’s a second chance at being able to do what I love, which is play hockey and especially for the United States of America.”

 

 

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