Blue Jackets fans have seen a few star athletes stroll the red carpet to center-ice at Nationwide Arena for the ceremonial puck drop. Last year alone, the Blue Jackets welcomed Columbus native and golfing legend Jack Nicklaus to drop the puck on opening night. Later in the year, they brought back another Ohio native when Olympic silver medalist Kelli Stack of the U.S. women’s hockey team kicked off a game night.
That list will grow on Saturday night when Dublin’s own Sam Mumper does the honors before the Blue Jackets take on the New Jersey Devils.
Mumper is the latest national star athlete produced by Ohio, a member of the U.S. men’s national sledge hockey team that won gold earlier this month at the World Sledge Hockey Challenge in Edmonton. The U.S. went 5-0-0 in the tournament, defeating Canada in preliminaries and then beating Russia twice, including a dramatic 2-1 overtime win in the gold medal game.
It was Mumper’s first tournament with the national squad after making the team last July as one of 49 athletes who tried out. The team has worked out together on a monthly basis, but Edmonton was Mumper’s first game action with the team on a big stage.
It’s been a big year for Mumper, but his is a story of hard work that goes back much further than July.
“I was disabled when I was nine,” said Mumper. “To remedy that, I went to physical therapy and one of the kids I met at physical therapy played (sledge hockey). That got me into it and I started when I was 11, and it kind of took over from there.”
Many players in the NHL can say that they began playing hockey when they were as young as three or four and worked their way up to an elite skill level. Mumper, now 20, took to the ice much later, and in just nine years, is one of the best players in the world.
“I’m still a little speechless about that mostly. It just kept happening and things kept going well,” said Mumper, who attributes his success to his drive to be the best.
“There were guys out there who were better than me. When I first started it was more of a frustration, like ‘why can’t I do that, I should be able to do that.’ Then I kept passing players and then looking at players better than me again and saying I wanted to be better than them. That was my goal from the start and it kind of worked its way up.”
Sledge hockey players are strapped to single-runner sleds, propelling themselves up and down the ice with a small stick in each hand that they also use to shoot. While some of the skill sets required to compete on the ice differ from those of the players in the NHL, there is little difference in the preparation and conditioning levels of the athletes.
“To be an elite athlete, it’s the same. It’s 75 percent off the ice with sprints and a lot of upper-body. But there’s really not much of a difference in preparation between the top sledge hockey players and the NHLers,” said Mumper.
Mumper’s hard work earned him a spot in the U.S. National Development Program, the “B” Team as Mumper described it, where he played for the past four years.
Mumper also played locally the last four years for Ohio United, where he’s scored 41 goals and 75 points through 45 games over the last four seasons as a defenseman. But it’s his progression in the USNTDP that has pushed him onto the National Team roster, and it’s the members of that team, along with his friends and family back home, that are most excited to see Mumper make this next big leap in his career.
“I think some of them were more excited than I was," he said. "I worked up from a chubby 15 year-old kid up to now, and I’m sure it was great for them to see the transformation.”
The transformation isn’t over yet. Mumper reached this level by constantly pushing himself, and now, the team’s youngest defenseman has a new role and a new talent pool to push through.
“Up until now I thought I had a good handle on the game, and now I’m learning things that I never would’ve thought of,” said Mumper. “On the last team, I was kind of the go-to defenseman. I was out there every other shift, and double-shifted sometimes. Now I’m seeing the other end of that, fighting for that one or two shifts a period it makes you appreciate it.”
Mumper said his parents have been a major influence in helping him reach the highest level of his sport, but also wanted to credit another person for his success- David Phillips, potentially the next sledge hockey star out of Ohio. Phillips made the development time this past year, filling a role vacated by Mumper when he ascended to the national team. The two train together regularly in Columbus.
Mumper has his eyes set on the 2018 Winter Paralympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, but for now, he can look forward to center stage at Nationwide Arena this weekend.
“I can’t wait," he said. "It should be awesome!”