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Top talent showcased at Sled Classic in Minnesota

More than 300 players competed in eighth annual event, with Blackhawks A team winning Tier I title

by Tom Gulitti / Staff Writer

MINNEAPOLIS -- Josh Pauls had to take a photo of the sign listing the rules for open skating at Plymouth Ice Center.

He found one particularly amusing.

No sliding, sitting or lying on the ice.

"That's what we do," Pauls said.

As captain of the U.S. Sled Hockey National Team, Pauls excels at he it. He and many of the top sled hockey players in North America were at Plymouth Ice Center the past four days for the eighth annual USA Hockey Sled Classic, presented by the NHL.

A record 28 teams, totaling more than 300 players, competed in this year's tournament, which concluded Sunday. Pauls, who was born in Green Brook, New Jersey, and now lives in St. Louis, played for the St. Louis Blues team in the Tier I bracket.

Over five tiers of competition (Tier I was the highest level and Tier V the lowest), 20 NHL member clubs from the United States and Canada were represented with players wearing their League-licensed jerseys. The Colorado Avalanche had three teams in the field. The Buffalo Sabres, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Edmonton Oilers, Nashville Predators and host Minnesota Wild each had two teams.

The Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes, Detroit Red Wings, Dallas Stars, Florida Panthers, Los Angeles Kings, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning and Winnipeg Jets each had one team.

The Blackhawks A team defeated the Avalanche A team 7-1 in the Tier I final Sunday to capture the J.J. O'Connor Courage Trophy, which made its debut at this year's tournament. The Avalanche were the 2016 Tier I champions.

"It means a lot," said Blackhawks forward Brody Roybal, who had three goals and two assists in the final. "We've been working super hard as a team, we've been practicing a ton and we're super excited to get it done, especially against Colorado. They've had our number for the past two seasons."

Pauls would have loved to get his hands on the trophy, but the Blues didn't advance past the round robin stage. After losing their first three games, they were at least able to leave with a positive feeling by defeating the Boston Bruins 4-0, with Pauls scoring three goals, in their final game. 

"It stinks that we didn't play the way we want to play and get to the championship game," Pauls said. "But coming off a win, everybody's going to be a little bit more up rather than hanging their heads. We're a real positive team and we're really close."

Pauls will now turn his focus to preparing for the 2018 PyeongChang Paralympics, which begin on March 8. The U.S. Sled Hockey National Team will play tuneup tournaments in Charlottetown, P.E.I. in Canada (Dec. 1-10) and Turin, Italy (Jan. 22-27) before going head-to-head with rival Canada in the 2018 Border Series in Buffalo and Port Colborne, Ontario (Feb. 7-11).

Pauls said, by comparison, the Sled Classic was "more relaxed, but every player on the national team is trying to play for bragging rights and so is every other player."

Pauls was one of 15 players from the U.S. Sled Hockey National Team to play in the Sled Classic. The Blackhawks A team roster included five players from the national team, including Roybal and Travis Dodson (three goals Sunday), and the Avalanche A team had four, which factored in those teams reaching the Tier I championship game.

At 24, Pauls is the youngest player to captain the national team. He won gold medals at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics and 2014 Sochi Paralympics, and also played for the U.S. at the World Para Ice Hockey Championship five times, winning the first of three gold medals in 2009 when he was 15.

Now he's hoping to lead the U.S. to its third consecutive Paralympic gold, this time as captain.

"To be able to win a couple of gold medals and to be able to lead the guys, hopefully, to another one is a special feeling," he said. "When you dream about [being captain] since you were 15 years old and finally achieve it nine years later it's kind of cool. It didn't really set in until I actually sat down and thought about it and was like, 'Wow, this is going to be awesome.'"

U.S. coach Guy Gosselin said Pauls' progression as a player made him the natural choice to be named captain.

"We've seen him grow up in the game," Gosselin said. "You don't have to be a cheerleader-type, rah, rah type captain. The guy leads by example and he brings it and people feed off that energy."

When Pauls isn't playing hockey, he works in sales for a finance company in St. Louis after graduating from Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, in 2015 with a degree in sports management. Although he was born without tibia bones and had each of his legs amputated at 10 months old, that didn't stop him of dreaming of playing in the NHL as a goaltender.

"I soon realized that to be a goalie you've got to be a little crazy," he said.

Pauls was introduced to sled hockey at age 8 when his mother brought him to a charity exhibition game in Bridgewater, New Jersey, between a sled team from South Jersey and team of able-bodied players in sleds. Pauls initially hated it. He was convinced to give it another try two years later. 

"A team opened up and they were like, 'Hey, why don't you give it one more shot?'," he said. "Then, something changed. I don't know what it was, but I loved it."

Pauls started out as a forward, but transitioned into playing defense. He was voted the best defenseman at the 2015 world championship and 2016 Pan Pacific Championships.  

Initially, Pauls loved the physicality in sled hockey, which he compared to metal bumper cars colliding. But at 5-foot-8, 135 pounds, he eventually realized that maybe it was better to leave the hitting to the bigger player. Now he embraces the speed of the game and, "being able to feel that wind through your hair, even under the helmet, and just being able to not have any kind of limitations that you may have day to day.

"Everybody is on an even playing field pretty much once you're on the sled."

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