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Sled hockey returns to HarborCenter with momentum on its side

When he goes to the mall, Adam Page gets recognized.

“Don’t you play for Team USA?” people will ask him. “We saw you play in Buffalo.”

Since having the USA’s gold medal win at the Sochi Paralympics televised by NBC, sled hockey in the United States has enjoyed a growth spurt. The television exposure combined with an initiative between Labatt Blue and USA Hockey has created more awareness in the mainstream sporting culture.

But there’s something more important than having people recognize sled hockey.

The really exciting part for Page and his American teammates is that more people are playing the game.

“Locally, we still have people coming out who never knew it was here, never heard of sled hockey,” said Page, a Lancaster native who plays for the Buffalo Sabres Sled Hockey Team and has been a member of the U.S. National Team since 2008. “They saw it in Buffalo and now we have those kids on my team.”

Buffalo got its first taste of international sled hockey last year when HarborCenter hosted the 2015 IPC World Sledge Hockey Championship.

Western New York gets another chance to see the world’s best this week as HarborCenter hosts the 2016 Ice Sledge Hockey Pan Pacific Championships.

The first-year tournament features Team USA, Team Canada and South Korea, host of the 2018 Paralympic Games. Also competing is Team Pan Pacific – a mixed squad including Japanese players along with players from the U.S. and Canadian developmental teams.

Coach Jeff Sauer has said that participation has “just blossomed” since the U.S. won gold in Sochi in 2014, and the growth continues.

That means when Team USA holds its development camp in Amherst in July, 40 or 50 players will be vying for 25 roster spots.

“So instead of the pool being 15, we’ve increased it 10 or 20 to put pressure on guys,” Sauer said. “All it does is build competition on the team. It’s fun to be involved with this because it’s fun to have that competition. You’re not just dealing with the same 15 guys all the time. They know that there are guys pushing them and that’s a positive from a coach’s standpoint.”

The talent pool is getting bigger, but the Team USA roster for the Pan-Pacific Championships is nearly identical to the roster it fielded for last year’s World Championships. That includes Page and forward Paul Schaus, a Buffalo native and member of Team USA since 2012, along with Team USA Captain Josh Sweeney.

“We’ve got a lot of guys on the developmental team coming for our spots, especially with the Paralympics coming up in a couple years, so we’re just trying to have as much fun with each other and continue to play to each other’s strengths,” Sweeney said. “It is definitely a different dynamic. We learned a lot last year. … This year we’re all settled in and starting to read each other better.”

This year is also a down year. There are no major international competitions so training has been on the lighter side. The team played in the World Sledge Hockey Challenge in Nova Scotia in January, defeating Canada, 3-2, in overtime in the championship game.

So Wednesday’s preliminary round meeting between the U.S. and Canada has the makings of another instant classic.

But while Sauer expects his team to be playing for a gold medal on Saturday, the focus is on improving with an eye toward Korea 2018.

“The real thing for me is to just continue to get better, get more competition,” Sauer said. “Every time I leave this team I talk to them about, ‘OK when we come back, the next time we’re together let’s start where we left off. Let’s not go back to the beginning.’ We’ve got a good attitude about that. Guys have come back in great shape and ready to go.”

The U.S. team has plenty of speed and youth. The key is to play within themselves.

“Just don’t beat ourselves. I think that’s one of our biggest weaknesses,” Page said. “We tend to beat ourselves sometimes. We have a ton of speed and youth and I think when we’re on our game and use that speed to our advantage no one can beat us.”

Tickets for each game, all held at HarborCenter, are $5.

email: amoritz@buffnews.com

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