Last year, a pinnacle. This year, a launching pad.
For three years out of every four, the World Sledge Hockey Challenge serves as a de facto world championship.
Not this year.
Not with 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, just around the corner.
This year the weeklong Sledge Hockey Challenge, which gets under way Dec. 1 in Toronto, will serve as a Paralympics tune-up for the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team, which captured last year's Challenge title in Calgary, and will defend its 2010 Paralympic gold medal in Sochi.
“We don't need to be the best team in the world this weekend,” U.S. coach Jeff Sauer said. “But we want to be the best team in the world [in Sochi], and that's what we're building on, starting this week.”
Team USA will join sled squads from Canada, Russia, and Korea in preliminary round play at the MasterCard Centre, with the semifinals to be held Dec. 5. The championship game will then be Dec. 7 at 5 p.m. EST.
The World Sledge Hockey Challenge will be Team USA's first competition since the selection camp in July, and after four months of pounding on each other, the opportunity to vie against players other than themselves is a welcome one.
“The big thing,” said Sauer, “is to send a message that we're ready to go. Winning and losing is always important. There are a lot of things on the line.”
Solidifying the final roster is among the items at stake. Sauer and his staff must make a cut from the current 18-man roster by Jan. 1, 2014. That is easier said that done given the Americans’ talented roster that includes seven veterans from the 2010 Paralympic gold-medal team. Among those returning is defenseman Andy Yohe, a two-time Paralympian who came out retirement and has since been named team captain for the second consecutive Winter Games.
The competition from within the U.S. squad is as spirited as it is from outside, Sauer said.
“We've got the best depth that we've ever had in our program,” he said. “We've got people competing for positions. I know some of the other countries don't have the depth that we have. But that depth and experience has to perform. The chemistry is very important. It always is. But we're very pleased with that as well.”
Sauer said that while his team will have to focus on its own strengths during the Sledge Hockey Challenge, it would be foolish to take the other contenders lightly.
“I'm concerned about Russia because they are the host country, and they've come a long way in a short time,” he said. “I'm looking forward to seeing just how far they have come. We'll know a lot more Sunday afternoon after we play them.”
The Dec. 4 matchup with Canada will likely be the strongest test of the tournament. Sauer said it could be a litmus test of sorts.
“I'm not going to do anything special against them,” he said. “You get more from an information standpoint, and not so much by cueing in on making sure we win the games. I want to find out who matches up against who, who our better players are against some of their guys.
“Those types of things are not only a learning situation for the players, but for the coaching staff in preparation for the actual [Paralympic] games. When the medal is on the line.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
|Dec. 1||Russia||W, 2-1|
|Dec. 2||Korea||W, 5-0|
|Dec. 4||Canada||L, 1-4|
|Dec. 5||Russia (Semifinal)||W, 4-1|
|Dec. 7||Canada (Championship Game)||L, 1-3|