Team USA head coach David Hoff on the 2022 Paralympic Games
With the closure of the Tokyo 2021 Summer Olympics and Paralympics, all eyes are now on the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, which will be held early next year in Beijing, China. Yesterday, OTF’s Jeff Middleton looked at which Nashville Predators players are likely to see ice time in Beijing now that NHL players are allowed to return to the Olympic rosters. But what does the sledge hockey landscape look like for the Paralympic Games?
To get a feel for how the United States team is preparing for Beijing and how Nashville will play a role in the preparation of the United States team, I spoke with the head coach US Paralympic Sledge Hockey Player David Hoff.
Qualification for Beijing 2022
The road to Beijing began in June at the A-Pool Para Ice Hockey World Championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic. There, the top eight sledge hockey (also known as para-hockey or sledge hockey) teams in the world competed not only for gold, silver and bronze medals, but also for their candidacy for the 2022 Paralympic Games.
Expectations were high for the United States team heading into the world championships. As the reigning 2019 gold medal champion (the 2020 Worlds were canceled due to the global pandemic), the US national team entered Ostrava with great talent and the desire to repeat as the World Champion. An added challenge, as Hoff shared with me, was the team’s inability to assess their progress against other international teams before Ostrava. While many European teams have been able to play tournaments and friendlies leading up to the world championships, travel restrictions have prevented the typical measuring stick from matches against Team Canada and other national teams in friendlies and tournaments. for Hoff and the United States team.
USA’s first Worlds game – a rematch of the 2019 gold medal game against mighty Canada – ended in a 2-1 loss for Team USA
“We had to get our performance under control,” Coach Hoff said of that opener. “We don’t blame anyone else. We did a lot of good things with our opportunities in the attacking zone. The first two periods, we struggled, but we dominated in the third. We could build on that. ”
Under Hoff’s leadership, Team USA built on the positives of this first round loss.
“Guys who are trying to find their game, and when it’s not going well maybe push a little too hard… the guys have done a good job finding their game and playing their game,” Hoff said, reflecting on remaining matches at the World Championships. Championships.
The United States won the remainder of their matches at the world championships and beat the Canadian team in the gold medal game 5-1, securing the top spot ahead of the Paralympic Games in March 2022.
The United States will be joined by Canada, the Russian Paralympic Committee, Korea and host country China, while remaining places in Beijing will be decided next week at the B-Pool Championships in Östersund, Sweden. .
Define the list of Paralympic Games
Coach Hoff noticed more at Worlds than his own national team’s play. Team Canada and Team RPC (Russian Paralympic Committee) won silver and bronze respectively and impressed Hoff. Two other teams that caught Hoff’s attention were the host team Czech Republic and team Norway, two teams that recently added new, younger athletes to their national team rosters.
Row spots are at the forefront of Hoff’s mind these days as he, his coaching staff and USA Hockey leadership work to build the Paralympic Games roster. Shortly after the team returned from the World Championships, Hoff and USA Hockey brought together nearly seventy of the nation’s top sledge hockey players for their first test weekend. Of those players, approximately twenty-five will be invited to a camp in Madison, WI, October 6-10. The final Paralympic Games list will be established after this weekend.
The roster decisions don’t necessarily get easier after a gold medal won at the World Championships.
“There is a comfort level with this list,” explained coach Hoff. “But Dan Brennan reminded me that we never had the same list two years in a row.” [Brennan is the Director of USA Hockey’s Sled National Teams.]
Seeing teams like the Czech Republic and Norway committing to new and younger athletes, and with a rich talent pool from U.S. sledge hockey programs, Coach Hoff will grapple with roster decisions until ‘after Madison Camp in October. But it’s a great place to be.
“I like the depth that we have,” Hoff said.
With the final 2022 Paralympic team roster established, the team will spend the next four and a half months training. Hoff is hoping COVID won’t derail plans for a fall two-game series weekend against Team Canada or a four-team tournament hosted by Canada in late November. The two will serve as a valuable experience before heading to Beijing in March, but like last season, Hoff knows the squad will need to be flexible.
The Paralympic Experience
While the Beijing 2022 Games will be Coach Hoff’s first Paralympic Games as head coach of the United States sledge hockey team, it will not be his first appearance at a Paralympic Games. Hoff served as an assistant coach in 2018 under then-head coach Guy Gosselin. This 2018 experience will be invaluable as Hoff takes the reins in Beijing this year.
“It was a good way to do it the first time as an assistant coach,” said Hoff. “I really enjoyed it, and there are a lot of things I’m going to be pushing forward.”
The Paralympics may have more fanfare and audience than the World Championships, but Coach Hoff believes the preparation and mindset required to be successful is about the same. The United States team will return to the Beijing ice rink to defend a gold medal. Hoff insists that the pressure to return to the top step of the podium only increases with the wrong frame of mind.
“The pressure comes when you focus on the outcome. We always try to focus on what we need to do to play our best. If we keep this focus, we still have room to improve, ”Hoff said. “How do we make sure our game is in the right place so if we do our things right we’re going to be hard to beat?”
With the victory at the World Championships in June, the United States will arrive in Beijing with a thirst to once again beat the tough international competition. Player development and skill enhancement is only part of the goal for Coach Hoff and the team going forward. Besides the inner workings of the game, Hoff also wants to improve the conceptual side of sledge hockey with the team.
“How can we improve? It’s more than skills. We want to improve the tactical aspects and our understanding of the game. ”
The growth of sledge hockey
Coach Hoff recognizes the changing nature of the sport of sledge hockey and compares the development of the game to the changes seen over the years in standing play in the NHL.
“It’s not just a shooter anymore. It’s no longer about having a heavy, hard shot. Defense has become more difficult and the game is playing differently. The skill level has increased. The tempo picked up. Skill increases just like we saw with the stand-up game.
Not only is the skill and pace of sledge hockey increasing, but also its appeal and reach. Hoff attributes the growing interest in the sport to its credibility and visibility.
The credibility of an already successful American sledge hockey program grew exponentially when Jeff Sauer, former head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers hockey program from 1982 to 2002, took over as head coach. of the national sledge hockey team in 2010. Sauer, who led the Badgers to two national titles and developed one of the best programs in the country during his tenure at Madison, was a well-respected name in the hockey community. upright. Under Sauer, the US team won gold at the 2010 and 2014 Paralympic Games. Guy Gosselin took the lead of the Paralympic program in 2018 and led the US team to a three-round gold medal. in PyeongChang. Hoff recognizes the leadership and success of his predecessors in attracting attention and investment in the sport of sledge hockey.
Visibility has also increased over the years as channels like NBC Sports and the Olympic Channel broadcast international sledge hockey competitions. The PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games broke all previous broadcast and online audience records, and it is hoped that Beijing will attract even more new fans to sledge hockey.
I asked Coach Hoff what he loved most about training at such an elite level in the sport of sledge hockey. Hoff was quick to respond.
“It’s so fun. Someone once said that when you find a job that doesn’t seem like a job, you did it. It’s such a great group of people, from staff to players. let’s all love being together. ”
Nashville will play a key role in building that team of camaraderie among the athletes and coaches of the 2022 Paralympic Games. Starting in January, the Paralympic team will be spending much of their training time here in Nashville to put the final touch to his game plan for Beijing. Nashville is the home and training ground for many of the best sledge hockey players in the United States and around the world. Hoff and the athletes will take advantage of the ice available in Nashville in the months leading up to the Games.
Nashville sports fans have a lot to look forward to as Coach Hoff and USA Hockey finalize Paralympic sledge hockey team lineup and look to Beijing 2022.