By Mike Zhe
New Hampshire’s Taylor Chace, above and below in the gold medal game at the Sochi Paralympic Winter Games, helped the U.S. sled hockey team win back-to-back gold. (Photos/Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images)
It was a busy month of March for sled hockey player Taylor Chace.
Since returning from the Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia, he’s had a series of speaking gigs, including one at his old elementary/middle school, Lincoln Akerman School, in Hampton Falls, N.H.
Many of the kids he addressed wanted to ask him about the same thing: the gold medal.
The Americans became the first country to win back-to-back sled hockey gold medals at the Paralympic Winter Games, which they achieved by blanking host Russia, 1-0, in the final on March 15.
“They want to see the medal,” said Chace, “and they want to know how Sochi was, the whole experience, being how it was portrayed kind of negatively in the media. It was really safe.
“They also want to know more about the sport. It was new on TV this year. NBC covering the games showed the sport to a lot of people who hadn’t seen it.”
Chace, 27, didn’t grow up wanting to play sled hockey (or sledge hockey, as it’s called in the rest of the world). When he was 16, while playing juniors for the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs, he was checked back-first into the boards and fractured vertebrae in his lower back, leaving him partially paralyzed.
Three years later, after getting introduced to sled hockey through the Northeast Passage program at the University of New Hampshire, he made the U.S. National Sled Team and played in his first Paralympics in 2006, as the Americans settled for a bronze medal in Torino, Italy.
“Every one of us has a story to tell,” said 22-year-old U.S. forward Adam Page, who was born with spina bifida, a birth defect caused by the incomplete formation of the vertebrae. “You’re letting people know your life’s not over. The cool part is that a lot of people got to see the Paralympics on TV.”
Team USA is made up of military veterans — the “Bravo Delta” line of former U.S. Marines Rico Roman, Josh Sweeney and Paul Schaus featured three players who had one or both legs amputated after combat injuries in Iraq or Afghanistan — and players who suffer physical handicaps, either ones they’re born with or, in the case of Chace, due to misfortune that strikes growing up.
Chace thinks the camaraderie has a lot to do with the team’s success.
“The trust level on this team is very high,” he said before the Games. “We’re all brothers on this team, not just because we play on the same team, but because every single individual on this team has been through something so painful in his life — and not just made it through but achieved the Paralympic level is amazing.
“We’re all strong individuals and strong personalities.”
Team USA got its first adversity during its last game in pool play, losing to host Russia, 2-1, with an apparent tying goal by Chace late getting waived due to goaltender interference. That positioned it for a crossover semifinal game against Pool A winner Canada, whom the Americans knew they’d have to beat at some point if they wanted to win gold.
“We knew Russia was going to be tough,” said Chace. “We liked the fact that we were in a tough pool. I think it puts you in a stronger mindset for the crossover games.
“We just broke it down in kind of a Bill Belichick style,” added the lone New England native on the team. “One game at a time, one shift at a time. That’s what we did after the Russia loss.”
Against Canada, the Americans played their most complete game, start to finish, winning 3-0 and never giving the Canadians a sniff of momentum in the final two periods. Standout goalie Steve Cash needed to make only 11 saves for the shutout.
“They really didn’t have a chance in that game, and you could see it in their faces, especially in the third period,” said Chace.
That set up a rematch with Russia for the gold. Sweeney’s goal in the second period stood up as the only one, Cash was stellar again and the Americans made their history in dramatic fashion.
“The defensemen talked before that game, and we just made sure we were going to be real disciplined,” said Chace. “Weren’t going to take any chances unless we were 100 percent sure of getting the puck out.”
Camaraderie and chemistry were two terms tossed around freely afterward.
“I’ve coached guys in the National Hockey League and guys that have won national championships, but the chemistry on this team with a 15-year-old and a 35-year-old player is better than any team I’ve ever coached,” said Team USA coach Jeff Sauer. “There’s a bond there, and I love them like sons.”
And the future? One of the most encouraging things the Americans took away was the play of 16-year-old Declan Farmer and 15-year-old Brody Roybal, two players who could be anchors on U.S. teams for cycles to come.
Chace isn’t committing to another go just yet — “Sled hockey does not pay the bills,” he noted — but loved that he got to be part of back-to-back history. He was named the tournament’s outstanding defenseman in Vancouver in 2010.
“I’ve had time to reflect on it and, obviously, proud of the team and proud of the guys, for all the sacrifices we made to win the gold medals,” he said.
It’s a story that figures to be retold for a while.
This article originally appeared in the April edition of the New England Hockey Journal. Click here to access the FREE digital edition.