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SAN ANTONIO -- Finishing atop the standings and bagging tournament titles has become the norm for sled hockey players Josh Sweeney, Rico Roman and Jen Yung Lee.
But the 2012-13 season featured an uncharacteristic three second-place finishes for the trio of men, who compete for the San Antonio Rampage Sled Hockey Team and the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team.
“During the season we didn’t do as well as we usually do,” said Rampage defenseman Rico Roman. “On both the Rampage and the U.S. National Team, we kept giving up fast break goals and it seemed like our opponents got most of the breaks. Both teams were too good to take second place so often.”
“I think it has left a nasty taste in our mouths,” Roman added. “The second place finishes have us working even harder in the offseason so we can once again win our conference and reclaim the gold medal in the upcoming Paralympic Games.”
Military Appreciation Night:
The San Antonio Rampage held their 10th annual Military Appreciation Night on March 2. The pregame on-ice ceremony to recognize the Rampage Sled Hockey Team has become a staple of the night and is always greeted by tremendous support from the fans in attendance.
“The pregame ceremony is always one of the biggest things we look forward to all season,” said Chris Leverkuhn, who has been a member of the Rampage Sled Hockey Team since its founding in 2007.
“Being able to get out there on the ice shows people that a disability is not the end and that we’re able to move on and do something we love every day.”
The Rampage Sled Hockey Team was the first team to consist of all wounded military service members. The team is run by Operation Comfort, a nonprofit organization that works with wounded Service Members coming from Iraq and Afghanistan who are recovering at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
Following Military Appreciation Night, the Rampage auctioned off their military-themed camouflage jerseys – along with the jerseys from members of the sled team – and raised $30,000 to benefit Operation Comfort and the Rampage Sled Hockey Team. In all, the Rampage have raised nearly $250,000 in 10 years to support the organizations.
“We’re very appreciative for everything the Rampage team has done for us,” Leverkuhn said. “Every year Military Appreciation Night seems to get better and better.”
Leading up to Military Appreciation Night, the Rampage players participated in a sled hockey clinic hosted by the Rampage Sled Hockey Team.
For many of the Rampage players, it was the first time they had ever been on a sled – giving them a new appreciation for the skills required to play such a fast-paced sport.
“I knew it was going to be difficult, but I didn’t think it was going to be this hard,” said Rampage forward John McFarland. “I’ve been struggling to stay on my edges so far. It’s a very, very hard sport to play. I’ve been out here for two or three minutes and I’m just about ready to stop playing for now.”
“That was a terrific day for our team to show the Rampage players what sled hockey is all about,” Leverkuhn added. “But I’m not sure there were many future sled hockey stars out there from the Rampage team.”
Three weeks prior to Military Appreciation Night, the Rampage Sled Hockey Team held their fourth annual home tournament at Northwoods Ice & Golf Center in San Antonio.
The Rampage were two-time defending champions of their tournament and had high hopes of making it three-straight titles on home ice.
After cruising to a 3-0 victory over the Colorado Avalanche Sled Hockey Team and a 4-2 win over the RIC Chicago Blackhawks, the Rampage dropped a 2-1 decision to the DASA St. Louis Blues on the team’s Military Appreciation Night.
The team went on to a 5-3 win over the Florida Bandits Sled Hockey Team to lock up a second-place finish in the round-robin tournament.
“We were disappointed to take second place in our home tournament, but we left it all out on the ice against St. Louis,” said Sweeney, who led the Rampage with seven points in the four games.
“The support from the community was amazing throughout the tournament. It was definitely the biggest crowd we’ve played in front of in San Antonio and was even bigger than some of the crowds we have at tournaments for the National Team. Having that support was awesome.”
The Rampage then traveled to Chicago in early March in hopes of defending their two-time conference title in the Midwest Sled Hockey League. However, two of the team’s top two players, Roman (defenseman) and Lee (goaltender), were unable to attend the tournament due to family obligations.
The Rampage coasted through the preliminary-round games, but again it was the pesky DASA St. Louis Blues squad that dethroned the Rampage as conference champions.
San Antonio finally got the best of St. Louis in a preliminary-round game at the USA Hockey National Championships in Philadelphia in mid-March. The Rampage were the only team to finish pool play with a perfect 3-0-0 record, setting up a rematch against St. Louis in the championship game.
However, yet again, the Blues were able to come out on top with a 2-1 victory in the championship game to give the Rampage their second runner-up finish in the national tournament in as many years.
“I still think this year was the best we have had as a team,” Roman said. “We were really clicking as a team and everyone was playing well together. I think that’s what makes the end results a little frustrating.”
Representing the Red, White and Blue:
The second-place trend continued for the Sweeney, Roman and Lee as members of the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team.
All wounded warriors, the three men picked up sled hockey at roughly the same time and have quickly moved up the ranks playing for the Rampage Sled Hockey Team. They made their National Team debuts in the 2011-12 season.
With National Team members scattered all across the country, Sweeney, Roman and Lee realize the value in playing on the same club team to help push each other to improve and prepare for international tournaments.
“Being able to compete against each other every day is amazing, especially considering one of us is a forward, one is a goalie and I’m a defenseman,” said Roman. “It allows us to really push each other as we train.”
The three men and their U.S. teammates made the journey to Seoul, South Korea in early April for the World Championships. The team entered the tournament on a high-note, having defeated arch-rival Canada in back-to-back international tournaments –the 2012 International Paralympic Committee Ice Sledge Hockey World Championships and the 2012 World Sledge Hockey Challenge.
The U.S. ran through pool play, posting three-straight shutouts and recording an impressive 17 goals in three games. Team USA earned a hard-fought win over Russia, 2-1, in the semifinals to set up the heavy-weight bout in the gold-medal game – Team USA vs. Canada.
Canada came out of the gates swinging and outshot the U.S., 15-2, in the game en route to a 1-0 victory. The lone goal came off a fluky shot from the top of the right circle that deflected past U.S. goaltender Steve Cash.
Sweeney finished the tournament with one goal and two assists in five games and Roman tallied one assist in four games from the blueline. Lee saw action in three games between the pipes for Team USA, stopping all nine combined shots he faced in 46:46 of ice time.
With the Paralympics creeping up in less than a year, the trio of San Antonians are already in the process of training for the numerous camps and tournaments that will proceed the most prestigious international sled hockey tournament.
“We really only have about two months out, but within three or four days after returning from Korea, Rico was already calling me to start working out again to get ready for next season,” Sweeney said. “Having those other two guys in San Antonio keeps us constantly improving because we push each other so much.
“We are looking to get the conference title back next season and we will go to Sochi for the Paralympics with only one thing on our mind – winning the gold medal. I think both teams are going to do exceptionally well next season.”