By Dan Hickling
Special to USAHockey.com
AMHERST, N.Y. -- Paul Schaus can tell you the date when his life was changed forever. June 5, 2009.
He was 21 then. A Marine. Serving his country in Afghanistan.
Schaus and his squad were out on a rural patrol when a roadside landmine, a device of insidious devilry that has been the scourge of Middle East peacekeepers, went off.
Schaus was seriously injured in the explosion, which took both of his legs. But his spirit? Nary a scratch.
“I think everyone has challenges,” said Schaus, a native of Buffalo who grew up a fan of the Sabres. “How you face those challenges defines who you are. I face everything with a good attitude. Just keep going.”
For Schaus, that road took him straight into sled hockey.
On Wednesday, Schaus was named to the 2014 USA Hockey Paralympic Sled Team that will compete in Sochi, Russia. This came just a year after making his national team debut at the World Championships in Korea.
As critical as the doctors at Walter Reed were about Schaus’ physical renewal, Schaus said getting on the ice with other overcomers was the tonic that got his life back on track.
“I got into sled hockey,” said Schaus, a forward, “and it was pretty much my gateway to have fun again. I got out there and started experiencing stuff again. From that (point) on, I've been pretty much trying to get on the team. Last year, when I finally did make the [national] team, it was kind of surreal.”
Although he was already a battle-hardened Marine, Schaus was still the new kid on the sled hockey block, just trying to earn his place in the dressing room that was full of Paralympic veterans.
And earn it he has.
“He's one of our leaders,” said Jeff Sauer, USA Hockey's National Team coach. “And he's a leader on the ice, but he's also a leader [in the locker room.] His story is as horrendous as any of these guys, [but] he's taken the bull by the horns. He's the epitome of work ethic and commitment.
“Let me tell you this,” Sauer continued. “Paul Schaus a year ago was a question mark. If we had a trophy for most improved player, Paul Schaus would be [it]. He’s head and shoulders above where he was a year ago. A year ago, he didn't talk, and was kind of in a shell.”
The shell began cracking when Schaus realized that sled hockey was the real deal.
“I grew up playing,” he said, “so once I got hurt, I was [ticked] off that I couldn't play hockey anymore. Then I found out about sled hockey. I was a little hesitant at first, because I thought it might not be the same for me.
“But once I got on the ice, smelled the ice again, heard the puck hit the boards again, felt the puck on my stick, I was back to playing hockey again. It was fun. It's part of me. I really enjoy being in this kind of environment.”
Schaus is not the only wounded warrior who does. Of the 18 U.S. players selected for Sochi, four of them have served in the military.
Besides Schaus, goalie Jen Lee (still active in the Army), ex-Army Rico Roman, and ex-Marine Josh Sweeney are also first-time Paralympians.
The infusion of former military has been a blessing to the entire sled hockey movement.
“The biggest thing is obviously leadership,” said goaltender Steve Cash, a three-time Paralympic selection who lost a leg to cancer. “[They] have brought a whole new element to the game. In the locker room, they're always positive. They make sure guys have their heads on straight. Then when they get on the ice, they take charge. They do whatever it takes to get that win.”
Schaus said that to him, the camaraderie in his new “unit” is a lot like it was in his old one.
Especially since skating backwards on a sled is next to impossible, creating a Semper Fi spirit on the ice is all important, just as it was on that day four years ago, when Schaus’ Marine teammates drew upon their training and saved his life.
“It's still the same,” Schaus said. “You go through things with guys. You're going through the same stuff. You build up a brotherhood. You definitely feel the same kind of feeling. You try to motivate each other and watch other's backs.
“We're a big family over here.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.