With the close of the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics and Paralympics, all eyes now look ahead to the 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, to be held early next year in Beijing, China. Yesterday, OTF’s Jeff Middleton took a look at which Nashville Predators players are likely to see ice time in Beijing now that NHL players are allowed back on Olympic rosters. But what does the sled hockey landscape look like for the Paralympics?
To get a sense of how Team U.S.A. is shaping up for Beijing and how Nashville will play a part in Team U.S.A.’s preparation, I spoke with U.S.A. Paralympics sled hockey Head Coach David Hoff.
Qualifying for Beijing 2022
The road to Beijing began back in June at the A-Pool World Para Ice Hockey Championships held in Ostrava, Czech Republic. There the top eight sled hockey (also called para hockey or sledge hockey) teams in the world competed not just for gold, silver, and bronze medals, but also for their bid to the Paralympic Games in 2022.
Expectations were high for Team U.S.A. going into Worlds. As the reigning gold medal champions from 2019 (2020 Worlds were cancelled due to the global pandemic), the U.S. National Team entered Ostrava with plenty of talent and a desire to repeat as World Champions. An added challenge, as Hoff shared with me, was the team’s inability to gauge their progress against other international teams prior to Ostrava. While many of the European teams were able to play some tournaments and friendlies leading into Worlds, travel restrictions prevented the typical measuring stick of matches against Team Canada and other national teams in friendlies and tournaments for Hoff and Team U.S.A.
U.S.A.’s first game at Worlds—a rematch of 2019’s gold medal game against powerhouse Canada—ended in a 2-1 loss for Team U.S.A.
“We had to own our performance,” said Coach Hoff of that first game. “We don’t blame anyone else. We did a lot of good things with our offensive zone opportunities. The first two periods we struggled, but we dominated in the third. We could build on that.”
Under Hoff’s guidance, Team U.S.A. did build on the positives from that opening round loss.
“Guys who are trying to find their game, and when it doesn’t go well maybe push a little too hard…guys did a good job finding their game and playing their game,” said Hoff, reflecting on the remaining games at the World Championships.
Team U.S.A. won the remainder of their games at Worlds, and defeated Team Canada in the gold medal match 5-1, ensuring the #1 ranking heading into the Paralympics in March 2022.
U.S.A. will be joined by Canada, the Russia Paralympic Committee, Korea, and host nation China, while the remaining spots in Beijing will be decided next week in the B-Pool Championships held in Östersund, Sweden.
Setting the Paralympics Roster
Coach Hoff noticed more at Worlds than just the play of his own national team. Team Canada and Team R.P.C. (Russia Paralympic Committee) won silver and bronze respectively and impressed Hoff. Two other teams that caught Hoff’s eye were the host Czech Republic team and Team Norway—two teams that recently added some new, younger athletes to their national team rosters.
Roster spots are at the forefront of Hoff’s mind these days as he, his coaching staff, and leadership from U.S.A. Hockey work to put together the Paralympics roster. Shortly after the team returned from the World Championships, Hoff and U.S.A. Hockey brought in close to seventy of the top sled hockey players in the country for an initial tryout weekend. Out of those players, around twenty-five will be invited to a camp in Madison, WI from Octover 6-10. The final Paralympic roster will be set after that weekend.
Roster decisions don’t necessarily get easier after a gold medal win at the World Championships.
“There is a comfort level with this roster,” Coach Hoff explained. “But Dan Brennan reminded me that we have never had the same roster two years in a row.” [Brennan is the Director of USA Hockey’s Sled National Teams.]
Seeing teams like Czech Republic and Norway committing to new and younger athletes, and with a rich talent pool of U.S. sled hockey programs, Coach Hoff will be wrestling with roster decisions until after the Madison camp in October. But it is a good place to be.
Once the final 2022 Paralympic team roster is settled, the team will spend the next four and a half months training. Hoff is hopeful that COVID won’t derail plans for a fall two-game series weekend against Team Canada or a four-team tournament hosted by Canada in late November. Both would serve as valuable experience before heading to Beijing in March, but like last season, Hoff knows the team will have to be flexible.
The Paralympic Experience
While the 2022 Beijing games will be Coach Hoff’s first Paralympics as the Head Coach of U.S.A.’s sled hockey team, it won’t be his first time at a Paralympics. Hoff served as an assistant coach in 2018 under then head coach Guy Gosselin. That 2018 experience will be valuable as Hoff takes the reins in Beijing this year.
“It was a good way to go the first time as an assistant coach,” Hoff said. “I thoroughly enjoyed it, and there is a lot I will take forward.”
The Paralympic Games may have more fanfare and viewership than the World Championships, but Coach Hoff believes the preparation and mindset necessary for success are very much the same. Team U.S.A. will be returning to the rink in Beijing to defend a gold medal. Hoff insists the pressure to return to the top of the podium only increases with the wrong mindset.
“The pressure comes when you focus on the outcome. We always try to focus on what do we need to do to play our best. If we keep that focus, we still have room to get better,” Hoff said. “How do we make sure we have our game in the right spot so if we do our things well, we will be tough to beat?”
With the World Championship victory in June, Team U.S.A. will arrive in Beijing with a hunger to once again best the tough international competition. Developing players and improving skills are only part of the focus for Coach Hoff and the team moving forward. Besides the nuts and bolts of the game, Hoff wants to improve the conceptual side of sled hockey with the team as well.
“What can we get better at? It’s more than just skills. We want to improve on tactical aspects and our understanding of the game.”
The Growth of Sled Hockey
Coach Hoff acknowledges the changing nature of the sport of sled hockey and compares the development of the game to the changes seen over the years in the NHL’s stand-up game.
“This is no longer just a shooter’s game. It isn’t about having a heavy, hard shot anymore. Defending has gotten harder and the game is played differently. The skill level has gone up. The tempo has sped up. The skill is increasing just as we’ve seen with the stand-up game.”
Not only is the skill and tempo in sled hockey increasing, so is its appeal and reach. Hoff credits the growing interest in the sport to credibility and visibility.
Credibility for an already successful U.S. sled hockey program rose exponentially when Jeff Sauer, former head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers hockey program from 1982-2002, took over as head coach of the sled hockey national team in 2010. Sauer, who led the Badgers to two national titles and developed one of the top programs in the nation during his tenure in Madison, was a highly-respected name in the stand-up hockey community. Under Sauer, Team U.S.A. won gold at the 2010 and 2014 Paralympics. Guy Gosselin took over the helm of the Paralympic program in 2018, and led the USA team to a gold medal three-peat in PyeongChang. Hoff acknowledges the leadership and success of his predecessors in bringing attention and investment into the sport of sled hockey.
Visibility has also increased over the years as channels like NBC Sports and the Olympic Channel air international sled hockey competitions. The 2018 PyeongChang Winter Paralympics broke all previous broadcast and online viewership records, and the hope is that Beijing will attact an even larger number of new fans to the sport of sled hockey.
I asked Coach Hoff what he enjoys most about coaching at such an elite level in the sport of sled hockey. Hoff was quick to answer.
“It’s so much fun. Someone once said when you find a job where it doesn’t seem like a job, you’ve made it. This is such a great group of people, from staff to the players. We all love being around each other.”
Nashville will get to play a key part of building that team camraderie among the 2022 Paralympics athletes and coaches. Starting in January, the Paralympics team will spend a significant amount of training time right here in Nashville putting the finishing touches on their game plan for Beijing. Nashville is the home and training grounds for several of the U.S.A.’s—and world’s—top sled hockey talent. Hoff and the athletes will take advantage of the available ice in Nashville in the months leading up to the Games.
Nashville sports fans have a lot to look forward to as Coach Hoff and U.S.A. Hockey finalize the Paralympic Sled Hockey Team roster and look ahead to Beijing 2022.