Josh Pauls and the United States Para ice hockey team are two-time defending Paralympic gold medalists, and kicked off their PyeongChang 2018 campaign with a 10-0 thumping of Japan on Sunday.
The game was a rematch of the Vancouver 2010 gold medal game, when the Americans claimed their second Para ice hockey gold since it became a Paralympic event in 1994 with a 2-0 victory over the Japanese. The sport was re-branded from Ice Sledge hockey to Para ice hockey in 2016.
You might be wondering what Para ice hockey actually is, but the only significant difference between it and the able-bodied version is the equipment used. The sport follows the basic structure and rules of ice hockey, just played on sledges (or sleds) instead of skates and with two sticks rather than one.
It is one of just two team sports in the Paralympic Games, and was invented in the 1960s in Sweden at a rehabilitation center where disabled or injured hockey players found a way to continue their passion. It didn’t make its Olympic debut far from it’s place of birth, when the first Para ice hockey tournament was played at the Paralympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway.
Norway are actually the only Paralympic ice hockey team with more medals (5) than the Americans (4), although the U.S. have the most gold medals with three. The American team are led by Josh Pauls, with the New Jersey native being named captain back in October. He paid his dues, spending the last three years as an alternate captain.
Now in his tenth season with the U.S. national squad, he’s racked up an incredible three world titles (2009,2012,2015) and two gold medals (Vancouver 2010, Sochi 2014). I was eager to hear his thoughts on the Americans’ international Para ice hockey dominance in a sport traditionally dominated by the Canadians:
“It’s down to our hard work and the work of our coaching and support staff. It takes a lot to stay on top of the world for so long and Canada and the rest of the world has definitely closed the gap, but the support we’ve gotten from our NGB (National Governing Body) and the USOC (United States Olympic Committee) has really made the difference.”
Josh has traveled all around the world competing with the best the sport has to offer during his career, and has accomplished an astonishing amount at just 25 years old. I was curious to hear about the quickly changing landscape of international Para ice hockey since he’s been with the U.S. team:
“The game has gotten so much faster and more skilled since 10 years ago. Different teams have risen up and more countries have started developing hockey teams, so the game is not only growing and gaining mainstream popularity, but the sport is developing on par with it’s able bodied equivalent.”
The way Para ice hockey players identify might be surprising to some. Although most are fans and fell in love with able-bodied hockey, the relationship between the sports is closely intertwined:
“Able-bodied hockey was always the mainstream way I saw hockey growing up and being a part of the Paralympics, especially with the coverage we’ve received over the past 4 years, we hope to change that so that kids are inspired to be the sled hockey stars of tomorrow. Hockey is hockey. We always refer to ourselves as hockey players because the rules don’t change much between hockey and Para ice hockey. It’s called Para ice hockey because it’s parallel to ice hockey.”
Josh hails from the hotbed of American hockey culture in New England, and was raised in Green Brook Township, New Jersey. This was certainly a massive influence on his participation in sled hockey from a young age. Joining the New York Rangers Sled Hockey club at just 10 years old, it’s where he plyed his trade as a hockey player from 2002-2008. There were other significant factors he drew inspiration from as a kid, however:
“Growing up in Jersey was awesome. I had great friends and a fantastic family that always held me accountable for my actions and inspired me to do great things. My family was huge in me falling in love with the game. My parents were big fans of hockey and I drew my passion and inspiration from them.”
When I asked whether sled hockey was a well-known activity when he was growing up and what the game means to him now, he had a rather surprising answer:
“It wasn’t. I had to wait two years after trying it to be able to play full time. It’s grown tremendously since I started, and there are over 50 teams across the country for both adults and kids to get involved. Any sport can be an escape. When you’re on the field of play you can focus just on the game and not worrying about any other distractions in your life.”
Josh certainly doesn’t have time to be distracted. In 2011, he joined the St. Louis Blues Sled Hockey club, members of the Disabled Athlete Sports Association (DASA). The defenceman was candid about the difficulties of moving away from home at a young age to pursue his dreams, and how the Blues have evolved since he joined on:
“It’s been different but living in St. Louis for school prior to playing made the transition easier. My girlfriend, Katie, and her family were instrumental in helping me adjust to living on my own. Our expectations as a team have greatly increased. We went from a tier 2 championship to winning the tier 1 championship a few years later. It’s been great to see how hard work has affected every player on our club.”
Pauls is also a leader off the ice, coaching a high school team along with being a guest coach for the United States Hockey development program. I wondered if he was able to continue his role whilst preparing for the PyeongChang Games, and what advice he gives to young Para ice hockey hopefuls:
“I’m not at the moment. I had to take some time to ensure my play was where it needed to be for this stage. If you love the game you’ll find a way to play. That’s not advice exclusive to disabled people, but kids in general.”
Like the 2014 Games in Sochi where the American Para ice hockey team defeated hosts Russia 1-0 to win it all, there is political turmoil surrounding this year’s events. However, Josh thinks they are still far overshadowed by the unifying spirit of the Olympics and Paralympics:
“I think sports have a unique way of bringing the world together and the Olympics and Paralympics are the largest stages to do so.”
As Josh and the team hope to claim an unbelievable third-straight gold medal next Sunday, 18 March, his elation on being named captain was met with a degree of competitive hesitation:
“It was an absolute honor and something I had been dreaming of since I first made the team. However, it won’t mean nearly as much without a gold medal around our necks when all is said and done.”
Featured image credit: Joe Kusumoto and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC)