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'Ice Warriors' tells story of U.S. sled hockey team

by Mike G. Morreale

Legendary college coach Jeff Sauer considered it a privilege to be given the opportunity to coach the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team to an unprecedented second straight gold medal last March in Sochi, Russia.

The incredible scene after the Americans had defeated Russia, 1-0, in the gold medal game at Shayba Arena was a moment for the ages when the 17-member team celebrated in their end of the ice once the final horn sounded while fans of both countries commended the effort with a standing ovation.

"I've never been involved with a group of athletes like I was the last three-and-a-half years with the sled hockey people," Sauer said. "It was a tremendous honor. The interesting thing about it was where it all happened; in Russia. In the old Soviet Union, handicapped individuals were kind of shunned and put to the side. This was a showcase not just for sled hockey, but handicapped folks all across the world. The crowds were unbelievable and the fact we won in front of a Russian crowd that had never seen handicapped individuals operate the way we did, was just fantastic."

Fans across the globe can witness the determination and courage of the U.S. sled hockey team members in a new 90-minute documentary entitled "Ice Warriors: USA Sled Hockey" that premiers Monday on PBS at 10 p.m. ET.

"I know every one of these guys … when they put that USA jersey on, I know how they feel," Sauer said. "It's no different than any other athlete representing millions of people in the United States."

The film will go behind the scenes of the sport with the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team and chronicle the struggles, heroism and accomplishments of the elite competitors who played a significant role in the gold-medal winning effort in Sochi.

Sauer's illustrious 31-year NCAA Division I college coaching career featured 655 wins (seventh all-time) and two national championships, both of which came during his tenure with the University of Wisconsin (1983, 1990). Sauer, who will be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame on Dec. 4 in Minnesota, said the group he had in Sochi was unlike any he has ever had as a coach.

"The chemistry on the team, winning the gold medal, is probably the highlight of my career so far in relation to what I've been able to accomplish with different groups of players," Sauer said.

"I kind of hesitated a little bit [when first asked to coach the team four years ago] because I didn't know the players, didn't know what it was all about. But I'll tell you what. I was on the ice for 10 minutes and was hooked. The skill level is incredible and I'm in awe of what some of these guys can do.

"It just rejuvenated me as a coach."

One of the top offensive lines for the United States consisted of U.S. war veterans Paul Schaus, Rico Roman and Josh Sweeney -- the "Bravo-Delta" line.

Schaus, who served in the Marine Corps and is a Purple Heart recipient, had a bilateral above-knee amputation after being injured by an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan.

"[Sauer] treats us like professionals and gives you the feeling that you're a hockey player and not disabled," Schaus said. "I think for a lot of the guys, that adds extra motivation and gives you that drive to play even harder. I feel like I'm on a hockey team again, just like I was as a kid in high school."

Roman is an Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient who had his left leg amputated above the knee after his vehicle was hit by an IED in Iraq. He was the last player to touch the puck before the Americans celebrated their second Paralympic Sled Hockey gold medal in March.

"I remember Sweeney was going deep into the [Russian] zone in the last 40 or 50 seconds of the game," Roman said. "And I know I could have gone to the net but knew there wasn't much time left so I took it into the corner. I looked up at the clock and was like, 'Five seconds left, yes, we got this.'"

The PBS documentary will also provide backstories on a few players who were injured while serving their country, and others who turned their lives around after serious accidents.

Sweeney was injured in Afghanistan, where he almost bled to death waiting for a medical transport after an IED explosion. Goalie Jen Yung Lee had his left leg amputated above the knee when he was injured in a motorcycle accident, but battled back to join the U.S. Paralympic Team while serving as an active duty U.S. Army sergeant. Team captain Andy Yohe, who lost his legs in a train accident and is the team's oldest player at 35, is also featured.

Sauer admits he never once thought of breaking up the "Bravo-Delta" line.

"I call them the old guys; it's a 'Yes sir' situation," Sauer said. "When I tell them to go out and shut down an opposing line they look at me and say, 'Yes sir.' When I tell them to go out after we have been scored upon and provide some energy, they say, 'Yes sir.' They are the most balanced and consistent line that I have; just a tremendous amount of discipline and attitude."

For more details on the Ice Warriors, the Sochi competition and the documentary, visit PBS.org/icewarriors.

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