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U.S. sledge hockey team gears up for title shot

Jeff Sauer loves the speed and skill of this team. He’s amazed by the chemistry they’ve developed, particularly considering the different backgrounds, age ranges and less-than-ideal training schedule that has the team together about once a month.

But if there is one thing that infuriates the head coach for the U.S. sledge hockey team, it’s their lack of goal scoring.

“One of the things that frustrates me as a coach with our group of players, we’re very skilled and we have talents that can maybe shoot the puck, but we don’t score like I wish we would,” Sauer said as Team USA prepared to open the IPC Ice Sledge Hockey World Championships at HarborCenter. “I would like to see us be able to score better, score more goals because we get more opportunities. But just the nature of the game and how fellas react and so forth and how they use their skill level, that was maybe my biggest disappointment when I first started coaching this group of players.

“We get a lot of chances to score, but we don’t do a good job of hitting the net. That’s one of the things I’m going to focus on during this tournament is getting a lot of shots on goal but concentrating on scoring goals, not so much just shooting the puck.”

That was only the start of the monologue for Sauer, who coached at Wisconsin for 31 years, winning national titles in 1983 and 1990. In his fourth year as the head coach for the U.S. Sled Hockey team he brings experience, wit and an up-front attitude to the program.

At the official USA Hockey news conference, with several of his players seated next to him, including Lancaster native Adam Page, Sauer was blunt about the difference between potential and execution.

“I’ll be up-front with Adam,” Sauer said, as Page tried to stifle a laugh at the other end of the table. “Adam’s probably one of the most skilled hockey players in the world in relation to this sport, but Adam doesn’t score like he could if he would concentrate a little more on putting the puck on the net. He’ll be the first to tell you that we put a lot of puck marks on the glass behind the net, and the net doesn’t go that high. We don’t need to shoot the puck up there.

“I tell these guys they have better skills than Wayne Gretzky does because they can shoot both ways and they can shoot with both hands. They have a tendency to do what all hockey players do, they get the puck on the stick and instead of shooting right away they take that one little extra stick-handle or whatever, and all of a sudden we’ve got a black mark on the glass. It may impress the girlfriend up in the stands, but from a coaching standpoint, I’d like to see them hit the net a little bit.”

The focus on goal production is the detail that keeps Team USA focused. After winning gold in Sochi in the 2014 Paralympics – the first nation to win back-to-back gold medals – the Americans have dominated sledge hockey in 2015. They are undefeated, winning the World Sled Challenge in February in Alberta, then sweeping a three-game series with Canada in North Carolina in March.

At the World Sled Challenge, the U.S. had little trouble scoring against Korea, winning 8-1 and 8-0, but the Russian team has given the Americans fits for the past two years. The U.S. needed overtime for a 2-1 win in the championship game of the World Sled Challenge. In the 2014 Paralympics, the U.S. lost to Russia, 2-1, in the preliminary round before beating the host country, 1-0, in the gold medal game.

That makes Sauer a little disappointed that the draw has the U.S. opening against Russia at 8 p.m. Sunday in the first of three preliminary round games.

“We’ve played very close games against Russia,” he said. “Russia has done a tremendous job getting to where they are in a short period of time. Understandably in Sochi when they were hosting, they wanted to be very representable and I think our guys along with everybody else were very impressed with how quick the Russians have put things together. It will be a very exciting game.”

The U.S. team returns the core of the team that won gold in Sochi while adding six new players and riding plenty of confidence, particularly with the event on home soil.

“Honestly, we’ve been preparing for this event since Sochi ended,” U.S. captain Josh Sweeney said. “When we found out we were going to be home for the World Championship in 2015, we didn’t want to disappoint our home base so we started training. A lot of us have trained together. A couple of guys have moved to places where we can train with each other so there’s been a ton of dedication to the sport. Really, we just don’t want to disappoint our fans at home.”

For Page, this is an opportunity to combine two dreams – playing for his country and playing for a championship in his hometown. This will be the fifth World Championship for Page, who also has two Paralympic gold medals from Vancouver and Sochi, but the first time many of his family and friends will get to see him play. While he has been asked for “too many tickets to count,” he said the hometown atmosphere creates comfort, not pressure.

“Actually I think I’m more comfortable, knowing the area and knowing the rink,” Page said. “I had a chance to skate on it a couple months ago. The nerves, you have them during any game playing for your country, but I’m a lot more comfortable going into this than any other tournament.”

So what about his coach’s comments about his need to shoot the puck on the net more?

“I know I have a really hard shot, it’s something I work on all year,” Page said. “It’s something I’m going to focus on going into this tournament and see what I can do. It’s thinking less, not overthinking the game and going out there and knowing your strength and what you’re good at and just sticking with that and not try to do too much.

“I don’t want to jinx it, but we’re undefeated this season going into this tournament. Hopefully we use that momentum and continue the success we’ve had.”