Chicago class gives USA the edge in PyeongChang

Defending Para ice hockey champions expect nothing less than gold 17 Jan 2018
A group of Para ice hockey players pose with their trophy on the ice

USA made it four straight titles in the Ice Hockey Sledge Challenge with victory over Canada

ⒸMatthew Murnaghan/Hockey Canada
By Stuart Lieberman | For USA Hockey

“We don’t expect anything less than gold. It meant a lot for the programme and the sport that sledge hockey has been getting a ton more coverage this year thanks to USA Hockey. It’s going to help grow the sport a lot.”

Since unveiling their roster for PyeongChang 2018 on New Year’s Day, the entire US Para ice hockey team moved to Chicago, where they have been living and training together the rest of the time leading up to the Paralympic Winter Games in March.

Five of those 17 players were already in Chicago, playing with the Chicago Blackhawks Sledge Hockey club, including 19-year-old Brody Roybal, a massive physical presence on the ice, and 27-year-old Kevin McKee, an agile skater known for his more reserved and calculated play.

While captain Josh Pauls and alternate captains Nikko Landeros and Declan Farmer will be looked up to, Roybal and McKee have been playing together for nearly a decade and provide a strong support of secondary leaders for the squad.

While young, they carry loads of experience, especially helping the USA skate to gold in their Paralympic debuts at Sochi 2014.

“We don’t expect anything less than gold,” said Roybal, who in 2014 was in his first year with the national team. “It meant a lot for the programme and the sport that sledge hockey has been getting a ton more coverage this year thanks to USA Hockey. It’s going to help grow the sport a lot.”

The former high school wrestler, always fighting for control of the puck, has averaged nearly two points per game over the last three seasons with the national team. Already this season, he led all skaters at November’s Sled Hockey Classic with 19 points (eight goals, eleven assists) as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks and was second among all skaters with 12 points (six goals, six assists) at December’s World Sledge Hockey Challenge.

McKee, an extra forward on the national squad four years ago, now clocks top-line minutes as a patient playmaker up top. He was third on the team with eight points (four goals, four assists) at the World Sled Hockey Challenge

“Now that I’ve played at that level, I know the crowd, I’m definitely more confident, and obviously I know what’s to come and how everything goes with the process,” McKee said of the Paralympics. “I’ll still be excited and jacked up to go, but I’ll be more focused this time, instead of being like ‘Oh my God, I’m here.’ Now that I’ve had that experience, hopefully I can do better personally, and we can win it all again."

Roybal and McKee, who practiced daily together for years before Roybal went off to college, know how to bounce back from a tough loss to their Canadian rivals in the finals of the 2017 World Para Ice Hockey Championships in April.

“We’re pretty confident and feel that last year’s worlds were a fluke for us,” McKee said. “We definitely don’t want to have another one of those. This happened in 2013, too, where we lost at Worlds and it was an eye-opener. It gave guys motivation, knowing that we can be beat, and made us work harder.

“Me and Brody have played together for so long that we know what each other are going to do right away,” he added. “We don’t even have to really talk anymore.”

Team USA will be going for its record-extending third consecutive and fourth overall Paralympic title. They opened their 2017-18 campaign with an unprecedented fourth consecutive and tournament-record sixth title at the World Sledge Hockey Challenge — beating Canada twice in the process — and will be in Torino, Italy, from 22-27 January for a four-nation international friendly.

After that, Team USA will return to Chicago until early March, as the team cooks and cleans together, with McKee chauffeuring everyone around after practice as the squad’s navigator in the city.

The Paralympic Winter Games take place in PyeongChang, South Korea from 9-18 March. Tickets can be purchased here.