Sledding into battle
Right now, it’s a bit of a running joke with the USA Sled Hockey Team.
When head coaches Ray Maluta and Billy Corbo are asked how long they’ve been with the national team, they say about 48 hours. Not 48 months or even 48 days — 48 hours. It’s an answer that gets them looks from just about everyone, but it’s an answer that seems to be putting a smile on the faces of their players.
Park City will have a chance to see the U.S. Team and their new leaders this Saturday as they play Team Canada in a tournament at the Park City Ice Arena.
The two upstate New Yorkers were hired in the last month to guide the team amidst some team changes. Both coaches have extensive experience in the upright game, bringing years of knowledge and a fresh approach to a team made up of players from all over the country.
From the players’ perspective, the change was a good one. According to center Taylor Lipsett, the duo brings a lot, both on and off the ice. Besides twice daily practices since the team arrived in Park City, they have also spent plenty of time working on team unity and communication.
From the coaches’ view, they are more than ready to get their hands dirty with the disabled national team. At a morning practice earlier in the week, they were blown away by the skill and speed of the sled hockey players and figure the transition to the sit-down game won’t be much of an adjustment.
"Hockey is hockey," Maluta said.
The tournament is preparing the team for a competition in Japan and the World Championships in March. The Park City event is one of a handful of tournaments scheduled throughout the winter. Otherwise, the team practices in their various home states, coming together only for training camps and tournaments.
The American team has a number of nemeses internationally, but none with the weight of Canada. It’s touch of the age-old hockey battle between the neighboring countries and a little bit of revenge after the Canadians took the gold in Turin at the Olympics two years ago. Whatever the reason, the U.S. Team is focused on beating the Canadian in a memorable way, but the task won’t be easy, Lipsett said.
"They’re fast, they’re strong. They’re a gold-medal team," Lipsett said. "We have to watch them."
The U.S. Team has been training since September in anticipation of this season, but they have been mentally anticipating the Canadian matchup even longer. They beat them on the Park City ice last winter and hope the rematch is even more competitive.
"There tends to be a few altercations on the ice, a few fights," Lipsett said, eyes twinkling. "You can tell the difference between a U.S. and Canada game vs. a U.S. and Sweden game. The intensity is a lot higher."
The American team has nine returning players and number of new athletes that Maluta is very excited about. It’s a very young team, made up mostly of college and high school players, but Maluta says that they can all stand up to the best teams.
The team will once again feature talented local Greg Shaw, who competes in both sled hockey and disabled skiing. Shaw will be just one of many American players, whose upper body strength and speed are amazing. Most of the players are from the East Coast, but Lipsett, a Texan himself, says that the game is spreading and that players from all over the nation are beginning to emerge.
According to Steve Cash, another U.S. player, they love playing in Park City. The Park City Ice Arena boasts one of the few rinks designed specifically for sled hockey with open benches and tempered glass sides so players can sit in their sleds off the ice and watch the action, rather then sitting on the ice, as they do in most rinks.
"It changes the speed and the flow," Lipsett said, praising the accessible Park City rink. "On other rinks, the puck gets caught in the bench and it takes away a whole side."
With the National Ability Center (NAC) overlooking the rink, players can easily walk or roll down the hill to get to the rink without the help of special vans or buses. They can also partake of all the NAC has to offer.
"I was amazed at the NAC complex when I first saw it," Lipsett said. "We don’t have anything comparable."
They also praise Park City for the community’s support of their sport. Lipsett says that no other U.S. city has the turnout of Park City.
"The community knows about the sport," Lipsett said. "I think it’s the loudest rink."
The team hopes to not only wow the crowds on ice but also looks forward to mingling after the games and sharing their excitement about their sport. A popular sport for both disabled and able-bodied people, they generally get a lot of questions.
"There’s a lot of crossover appeal," Maluta said.
The American team will take to the ice to face Canada on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Park City Ice Arena.
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