Ralph DeQuebec (right) joined the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team after serving with the Marines as a bomb technician in Afghanistan, where he suffered a near-fatal accident that ended his military career. Photo courtesy of USA
Ralph DeQuebec piled onto his teammates in euphoria at center ice of Gangneung Hockey Centre in Gangneung, South Korea. He and the rest of the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team had just pulled off a near-unbelievable comeback to win the gold medal at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in March of that year.
The U.S. defenseman raised his index finger as the gold medal was draped over his neck. Then he saw the American flag raised above all others.
“I thought that moment would be really hard because I lost 13 brothers in combat,” DeQuebec said. “But standing shoulder-to-shoulder, surrounded by my new brothers — it was amazing. I cried tears of joy because I had been willing to do anything to make this team. I was willing to die to make it.”
It was the realization of a goal he dreamed of in 2014, one that arose from heartbreak and a nightmare in Afghanistan that had almost cost him his life.
“I had to figure out what I wanted to be again.”
— Ralph DeQuebec
on finding normalcy
in his life after
losing his legs
DeQuebec was a bomb technician in the Marines, and while working to blow up a bridge while deployed in Afghanistan, an Afghan coalition member stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED), ensnaring DeQuebec.
He was flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where he was heavily sedated and attached to machines that kept him alive. He awoke after several weeks to discover he had undergone more than 30 surgeries and suffered a brain injury, partial amputations of his left pinky and right thumb and complete amputation of both legs above the knee.
DeQuebec struggled with the effects. Failing to progress in his recovery, he was straining to find normalcy.
“I had to figure out what I wanted to be again,” DeQuebec said.
He turned to athletics, something he had always been comfortable with. The Pennsylvania native played football, basketball and baseball throughout high school and was an avid weightlifter by age 14.
Gatson was persistent, however. So much so, DeQuebec’s wife at the time, Katie, made the decision for him.
“She forced me to try it just so the guy would get off her back.” DeQuebec said.
In 2013, a 30-year-old DeQuebec took to the ice for the first time. He strapped on a special sled, designed to sit on a pair of hockey skate blades and grabbed two small hockey sticks with the familiar curved edge. On the opposite end, the sticks had small metal picks on the ends which players use to move across the ice, like a cross-country skier using their ski poles to climb a hill.
Initially, DeQuebec felt out of his depth. Other, more experienced players sped around him and were tactically stronger than the first-time hockey player, but the sport’s physicality drew him back to the rink day after day, making him fall in love.
“The first time I hit someone into the boards, I thought, ‘Whoa! I can win a medal for this? This is something I can get into.’ It makes me wish I grew up playing hockey,” DeQuebec said.
He also enjoyed the camaraderie.
“We all had similar backgrounds and personalities. We could hang out and not just talk about hockey,” DeQuebec said. “It became what we call in the military ‘a force multiplier;’ something benefiting us in many ways.”
After his discharge from the Marines, DeQuebec tried wheelchair basketball, rugby, hand cycling, swimming, lacrosse and other sports before getting into sled hockey. Photo courtesy of USA Hockey
Having found his new passion, DeQuebec quickly improved on the ice, but he said one of his biggest keys to progress came via an Xbox.
DeQuebec was an avid video gamer at the time, usually playing Madden football or installments from the Call of Duty series, but when he picked up a hockey stick he thought it best to pick up a copy of “NHL 15” too.
The Be A Pro gameplay allowed him to control one individual player. Naturally, he chose a defenseman and the game highlighted responsibilities and steps he should take to play the position correctly. He’d play at home in his living room and mirror those actions at the rink in real life.
“I was starting from absolute square one and it was the best way for me to learn by doing,” DeQuebec said.
“Hockey is like a puzzle. There are so many different angles, and ways to play the game and you can get better on a daily basis. I think that’s another piece of what drew me to the sport. When I was a bomb technician, there was always that drive to get better every day.”
While DeQuebec was just learning the basics of the game, Team USA was showcasing itself as the world’s dominant force in sled hockey.
The Americans won gold at the 2014 Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia. It was their second consecutive first-place finish at the event, after winning in Vancouver four years earlier. Plus, they added an IPC World Championship in 2012.
“Seeing them up on the podium in Sochi really pushed me to make that happen for myself,” DeQuebec said.
The moment nearly passed him by.
After playing five seasons of sled hockey, three for the USA Warriors and two for the Colorado Avalanche’s sponsored sled hockey team, DeQuebec had tried and failed twice to make the final 15-man roster of the U.S. national team.
“In 2017, it was now or never (to make the Paralympics). I was already 34 years old, and probably not going to get another chance. It’s not an older man’s sport anymore,” he said.
Instead of crumbling, DeQuebec said his tryout at Northtown Center at Amherst in Williamsville, New York, was a pressure-free moment.
“In 2015 and 2016, I may have been a bit underdeveloped, but in 2017 I knew I had put in the work,” DeQuebec said. “It was more of a feeling, ‘If I make it, I make it.’”
He was selected as one of two newcomers to the roster, ultimately leading to his amazing memory in Gangneung.
“I thought that moment would be really hard because I lost 13 brothers in combat. But standing shoulder-to-shoulder, surrounded by my new brothers — it was amazing. I cried tears of joy because I had been willing to do anything to make this team. I was willing to die to make it.”
— Ralph DeQuebec
while standing on the
podium after winning an
Olympic gold medal
with Team USA
A memory that, in some ways, contained a similar emotional arc, from disappointment to elation.
Trailing rival Canada 1-0 with 50 seconds remaining in the championship game, the U.S. survived a shot from Canada’s Rob Armstrong that went off the post of an open goal. Twenty-two seconds later, Declan Farmer, the all-time leading scorer in Team USA history with 69 goals and 130 points, shoved a loose puck into the net and, later, provided the clincher in overtime.
“It went from zero to 100 real quick,” DeQuebec said. “I remember thinking, ‘This is it. It’s done’ when Armstrong took the shot and next thing you know we’re in a dogpile on the ice.”
DeQuebec has since played 27 games for the national team. He has 10 career assists and one goal as a defenseman.
He’s a Paralympic champion, a two-time Para Hockey Cup champion, and a member of the gold medal-winning 2019 World Para Ice Hockey Championship team in Ostrava, Czech Republic, last May.
He’s reached the pinnacle of a sport he hadn’t even heard of seven years ago, translating a frightful situation into happy and breathtaking moments he previously couldn’t have imagined.
“I get paid to do what I love. There’s not one day I go to work.” DeQuebec said. “I always say — I’ve turned a nightmare into a dream.”