Paralympic star, former Marine looks to boost sled hockey
By Paul Danzer | The (Vancouver, Wash.) Columbian | Published: July 4, 2014
That is what Josh Sweeney remembers most about the gold medal ceremony after the United States beat Russia in the sled hockey gold medal game at the Paralympic Winter Games.
"That was such a hard game, and the whole game, I never had that feeling that we've got this or we're going to win, so on top of playing hard, my stress level was through the roof," Sweeney said.
The United States won its second consecutive sled hockey gold medal on March 15 in Sochi, Russia, beating the host team 1-0 on Sweeney's second-period goal.
On July 16, Sweeney will be recognized with the first Pat Tillman Award for Service during the ESPY Awards. He was at Mountain View Ice Arena last week to get some ice time and to help promote a sled hockey program he is working with the Portland Winterhawks to establish.
Before he became a Paralympian, Sweeney played high school ice hockey in Arizona.
In 2009, he stepped on an improvised explosive device while serving with the Marines in Nowzad, Afghanistan. He had both legs amputated and severe injuries to one arm. He figured he would never again play hockey.
"I feel extremely honored to be receiving the Pat Tillman award," Sweeney said, noting that being from Arizona he is familiar with Tillman, a Arizona Cardinals safety who was killed in 2004 in Afghanistan after enlisting in the Army to join his brother, Kevin.
Sweeney first learned about sled hockey a month or two after he was injured.
"When I first heard about sled hockey, I still had severe hand injuries. I was still going through a lot," he said. "At that point my rehabilitation was focusing on being able to be independent. Once I heard about sled hockey, it changed to, 'Now I want to be an athlete.'"
He played sled hockey for only about six months before making the national team. He said the national team coaches took a gamble on him before he had developed much skill because they saw his hockey instincts.
Sweeney's athletic ability and hockey sense came in handy late in the second period of that gold medal game in Sochi. With the Americans and Russians locked in a tense contest and at the end of a long shift, Sweeney intercepted an outlet pass at the attacking blue line and swooped in alone on goalie Vladimir Kamantcev. Shifting the puck from his left to his right, Sweeney lifted it into the roof of the goal for the only score of the game.
"When you get into the gold medal game, it's supposed to be (close) like that. That's how you want it to be," Sweeney said.
The journey from Marine who earned a Purple Heart for his service to hero on the ice was a struggle, though the five years between the two events might seem short.
"It was pretty emotional, because you can't really do the things you know you used to be able to do. That's where you kind of have to let yourself forget about the things you used to be able to do and just focus on what you can do now," Sweeney said.
He and his wife, Amber, recently moved to the Portland area to be close to his wife's family in Hillsboro. His focus now is on establishing a sled hockey team in Portland. He is working with the Portland Winterhawks on a plan to acquire needed equipment and start at program at the Winterhawks Skating Center in Beaverton.
Sweeney, 27, was introduced to sled hockey by a San Antonio team that plays in a Midwest sled hockey league. With plans for a new team in Seattle, Sweeney said a Portland sled hockey team could be part of a West Coast league with two teams that exist in California and one in Arizona.
Playing for the United States gives Sweeney a chance to experience the intensity of competition, and to experience a contact sport.
"It's full contact. You don't have to hit. But if you want to you can, and it's a lot of fun," Sweeney said.
What players of all ages and abilities experience, Sweeney said, is freedom.
"If you're just out there on the ice, you're moving fast, not feeling like tied into your wheelchair," he said. "When you get on that ice on a sled, you feel like your mobility is through the roof and it really helps to release a lot of stress."