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U.S. sledge hockey team loaded with leadership

The coach for the United States team at the IPC Sledge Hockey World Championships doesn’t have to worry much about leadership or discipline in his locker room.

Four members of the U.S. team are retired Marines who are recipients of the Purple Heart.

“I’ve coached national championship teams, and I’ve coached NHL players,” said U.S. coach Jeff Sauer. “The chemistry in that locker room is as good or better than any team I’ve ever coached. They make my job very easy.”

Team USA meets Norway at 8 p.m. Friday at HarborCenter in a semifinal match. The winner faces either Canada or Russia in Sunday’s title game.

It’s hard to imagine that a more heroic group of athletes ever has represented the country in any sporting competition in Western New York. The four Marines all were injured in combat situations.

Buffalo native Paul Schaus, in his fourth year on the U.S. squad, lost both of his legs after being injured by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in June 2009.

Teammates Josh Sweeney, Luke McDermott and Josh Misiewicz likewise all needed bilateral amputations after being injured by IEDs while serving in Afghanistan.

What is it like to coach four Purple Heart recipients? Sauer, who won 655 games in a 31-year college coaching career, takes a long breath before answering.

“Let’s put it this way: It’s very humbling,” he said. “They bring an unbelievable attitude to this group. They bring a discipline to the group in relation to how they approach things. The neatest thing about it is to a man each one of them will say it’s like being in the military again, it’s like being in a group again, being in a locker room, being in a patrol, the camaraderie is great. It’s a tragedy what happened. But the guys have really stepped to the forefront and are fun to be around.”

Schaus, 26, played a lot of hockey growing up. He was in the Bud Bakewell club program in Buffalo for many years. He graduated from Kenmore West High School in 2006, but he played for the Riverside High hockey team. Getting back on the ice again means a lot.

“I grew up playing since I was 3 or 4,” Schaus said. “It’s every kid’s dream to make it to a professional level or play for your country. To be able to go into the Marine Corps, which I really wanted to do, and to come back thinking I could never play hockey again … and then to play on the national team traveling all over the world representing my country, it’s just a great feeling, it’s awesome.”

Schaus was a lance corporal in the Marines. He served an eight-month tour of duty in Iraq in 2008 before being deployed with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, to Afghanistan’s Hemland Province, a Taliban stronghold, the following year. That’s where he was injured, during a firefight with insurgents. He also lost his left ring finger.

Schaus doesn’t seek out many interviews because he likes to keep the focus on his teammates. But hockey has helped him move forward in his life.

“Four years ago, when Paul first got with our team, Paul was in tough shape,” Sauer said, referring to Schaus’ emotional recovery. “He has opened up so much personally. This has been an unbelievable thing for him. Paul gives us a physical presence. He gives us leadership on the ice.”

“When you’re in the hospital, your life changes,” he said. “To get back out there and get your blood going again, talking with the guys, joking with the guys, getting out there and crashing into people, you just feel alive again. That’s what it is. It’s something I’ll always play. It’s awesome.”

Embracing the team-oriented environment comes naturally to each of the four Marines on the U.S. squad.

“Instead of just living your daily life, going about your daily life in what you want to do, you come here and you’re working for the guy to your left and to your right,” Schaus said. “That relates to how the Marine Corps is. Because it’s not all about you. You’re going to have to sacrifice. You’re going to have to hurt. And that’s all for a good reason, to achieve a bigger goal.”

Schaus has two goals and an assist through three preliminary-round games. Lancaster’s Adam Page has three goals and four assists.

The U.S. team (3-0) has outscored its foes, 20-1. Norway (2-1) holds an 8-6 scoring edge. The Canada-Russia game is at 4:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the First Niagara Center box office.

On Thursday, Germany advanced to the fifth-place game on Saturday by scoring a 1-0 victory over the Czech Republic. Simon Kunst made 12 saves and earned the shutout as Germany got its first win. Felix Schrader scored in the second period.

Germany will face Italy, which defeated Japan by a score of 5-1 in Thursday night’s other consolation-round game, in that matchup.