Colorado Avalanche Sled Hockey alum Ralph DeQuebec delivered hits for Team USA during the 2021 Para Ice Hockey World Championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic, June19-26. There, he captured his second world championship gold. Photo submitted by USA Hockey
Rico Roman may be running out of places to keep his gold medals. The former skater for the Colorado Avalanche Sled Hockey Team earned two gold medals at the 2014 and 2018 Paralympic Games and one from the Para Ice Hockey World Championships in 2019. On June 26, he added another to the collection.
Roman, fellow former Avalanche skater Josh Hargis, current Avalanche member Ralph DeQuebec, and the rest of the Team USA Sled Hockey National Team won the 2021 Para Ice Hockey Sled World Championships at Ostraver Arena in Ostrava, Czech Republic, which took place June 19-26.
“It felt great. It never gets old winning, especially celebrating with my teammates,” Roman said of the championship run.
“We didn’t start out really well, but we just tried to own our performance and vowed to get better with each game, and I thought we did,” U.S. coach David Hoff said.
They saved the best for last.
Team USA struck for a third power-play goal four minutes into the second period and added another with 1:04 remaining. The Americans struck again in the third, completing a dominant 5-1 win. It was Canada’s largest margin of defeat during tournament or series play in over 13 years.
“You go in there and it’s always a good matchup when the two teams play. It always seems to come down to a goal or two,” Hoff said. “I thought we came out really aggressive and what is most impressive to me is that we just never let off. I’ve coached long enough to know, whether sled and standup hockey, that you get stretches of that, but then the other team creates stretches of their own. Man! Those stretches when we weren’t controlling play were very short and small throughout that game.”
Team USA also finished with a 39-1 shots-on-goal advantage.
“You look on it afterwards and that’s when you really tip your cap to our players in terms of how well they played that night,” Hoff said.
When the final seconds ticked off the clock, 17 U.S. skaters piled on one another, celebrating the nation’s fifth world championship victory, the most in history. Canada has four.
Moments later, the players received medals, euphorically sang along with the national anthem booming throughout the arena and raised the trophy as yellow, blue and red streamers rained down on the ice. It was a scene seemingly unimaginable six months ago. In fact, the tournament itself was difficult to imagine.
At the beginning of 2021, sled hockey was at a standstill due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Team USA hadn’t played a competitive game since February of 2020 and club teams were out of action, too.
“Every month we were gonna have a camp, but it kept getting canceled,” Hoff said. “Dan Brennan (Director of the National Sled Hockey Teams) felt terrible because he’d be the one to deliver the news during our weekly zoom calls that the next camp is canceled.”
Players were forced to stay sharp by practicing individual drills or driving cross-country to meet teammates with open ice. Roman, a Portland native, drove to Colorado and Texas at least four times to find practice partners.
Then in February, Hoff received word that the world championships had found a venue and start date for June.
Team USA set up national team camps in March — finally able to meet for the first time since the shutdown — in Madison, Wisconsin, and St. Louis, Missouri.
Twenty-three players were invited to the first two five-day camps, down from their usual open tryouts of up to 80 athletes. Seventeen players eventually made the roster, attending two more camps to sharpen for a season that would span just eight days of high-stakes competition.
“The one advantage we do have is our depth,” Hoff said. “We had to play against each other through those four camps and the fact that we were able to do that gave us a chance to replicate in some way what the game situations were going to be like.
Much of this preparation happened even though many still had their doubts the tournament would happen.
“Not until we booked flights, which was around April, did it start to feel real,” Hoff said.
When players finally arrived in Europe they were placed in a bubble and did not leave the hotel except for bus rides to the arena for practices and games.
“To have all the unknowns, then to be in a bubble for two weeks… none of us knew what to expect.” Hoff said. “Then, to play one of the better games we’ve ever played makes it very memorable.”
Returning home with his fourth medal, Roman already says he has room for another.
“Our eyes our on the big prize, bringing back a gold medal in the Paralympic games,” Roman said.
Sled hockey athletes have a chance to join him on his quest. Tryouts for the 2021-22 national team are July 17-18 at the Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees, New Jersey, and the camp is open to all once again.
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