Thousands of disabled people have fallen in love with sled hockey, an exciting and popular Paralympic sport with professional leagues spanning the globe.
U.S. Marine Sergeant Josh Sweeney has become a star for the national sled hockey team. (Photo: USA Hockey)
One of those players is U.S. Marine Sergeant Josh Sweeney.
A native of Phoenix, Ariz., Sweeney played roller hockey in junior high then progressed to ice hockey during high school. He fell in love with the game; the camaraderie, the physical toll and the adrenaline rush.
"I was more of a bang-into-someone-to-get-the-puck type of player," Sweeney said. "I filled that role and had a lot of fun doing it."
Hockey took a backseat when Sweeney filled a new role, this time as a member of the United States Marine Corps on the front lines in Afghanistan. During his second deployment -- his first was in Spain -- he lived on forward operating bases, places where Sweeney says he was "in direct contact with the enemy."
It was in the Afghani town of Nowzad in 2009 that a bomb exploded beneath Sweeney. After more than a dozen surgeries, he found himself a bilateral amputee with significant injuries to his left hand and arm. Still, his love of hockey endured.
"I remember telling my mom about a week after I got injured. I said 'That sucks that I'm not going to get to play hockey anymore,' " Sweeney said. "It's funny because I never thought of hockey regularly, and then it's one of the first things I thought about it when I got injured."
In early 2011, Sweeney was transferred to San Antonio, where he continued out-patient rehabilitation at the Brooke Army Medical Hospital. It was there that he was introduced to sled hockey, a sport that was unknown to him. A few of his fellow patients were playing with the San Antonio Rampage, a team of wounded service members that competed in the Midwest Sled Hockey League (MWSHL) and is the result of partnership with the AHL team of the same name.
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It wasn't long before they encouraged Sweeney to try out.
"As soon as I found out about sled hockey, it gave me this rise to get better as soon as possible," said Sweeney. "I think that's really what carried me."
Within months of trying out with the Rampage, his coach, a former U.S. national team player, recommended Sweeney to scouts for the U.S. National Sled Hockey team. Since then, he has become one of the national team's top power forwards, a position that fits perfectly with his military background.
"I'm trying to get in front of the net and just be a pain for whoever's in front of the net and the goalie," Sweeney said. "[My military experience] really helped in that respect, where I can kind of tune out when they're hitting me in the back and pay attention to the defense and worry about the puck and do my thing."
In the end, hockey didn't save Sweeney's life, but it may have salvaged his spirit. There is no regret or despondence in his voice as he contemplates his future. The plan right now is for him and his wife, Amber, to move to Oregon next year, where he wants to attend college, start a sled hockey program and continue training for international competitions.
"[Hockey] really has given me a new goal in life," Sweeney said. "Finding hockey again, just having it re-introduced into my life, really gave me a sense of being -- a reason to continue on."