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Red Wings' sled hockey team crowned champions

Detroit wins title without their goalie in championship game

by Arthur J. Regner & Dana Wakiji @Dwakiji and @ArthurJRegner /

DETROIT - If you are around sports long enough, you'll eventually see everything - the good, the bad and the improbable.

But what the Detroit Red Wings' sled hockey team faced during the USA Hockey Sled Classic, held in St. Louis from Nov. 14-21, is a remarkable story of perseverance and team unity.

Back in late October, on-ice rivals from the Detroit-based Michigan Sled Dogs and the Grand Rapids Sled Wings joined forces to represent the Red Wings, Detroit and Michigan in the USA Hockey Sled Classic.

The teams took in a Wings practice at the BELFOR Training Center where they met several players and were surprised with new equipment and personalized Red Wings jerseys which they would wear in the tournament.

Tweet from @DetroitRedWings: ICYMI: #RedWings surprise sled hockey players with jerseys and gear; Michigan-based team will represent Detroit at the USA Hockey Sled Classic in November. 📒:

Thanks to the partnership between Warrior Hockey and the Red Wings Foundation, the players were looking their best and feeling good about themselves in their official Wings threads as they embarked on their quest to become champions.

Once they arrived in St. Louis, the Red Wings sled hockey team was not to be denied. The players put their differences aside and cruised to the Tier IV Championship, outscoring the opposition, 28-1.

Detroit reached the championship game without surrendering a goal in defeating Nashville Black, 7-0; Colorado, 8-0; and Nashville Yellow, 8-0, before facing Tampa Bay for the title.

After a solid first period in which they scored four goals, the Red Wings beat the Lightning, 5-1, to capture the crown.

On the surface, it appears to be a workmanlike business trip for the Red Wings sled team where they came to St. Louis and left as the conquering hero.

Well, that's not exactly the real story.

After dispatching Nashville Yellow, 8-0 in last Saturday's semifinals, the Wings were left without their goalie, budding star Taggart VanderMolen.

VanderMolen, a member of the USA Hockey Development Team, had a prior family commitment and was unavailable to the Wings in the biggest game of their collective careers.

"There's always going to be a little bit of kind of hesitation, I guess would be the best way to describe it. Just not knowing who, up until I want to say Saturday night, or Saturday before our semifinal game, we still hadn't figured out who was going to go in net for Sunday," said defenseman Jake Jones, the Red Wings' unofficial captain. "We wanted to focus on the game at hand and making it to that Sunday game, but we always had that thought in the back of the head, hey, who's going to be in that spot if need be. Jim (Sahnow) had stepped up earlier in the locker room and made a comment, saying, 'If we need to, I've kind of played defense, blocked shots, I'm willing to give it a shot.'

"So, as the time came closer and we realized that was the place, I went out to him, one on one, and said, 'Hey, do you want to take that chance? Do you want to step up and try it?' He was gung-ho and ready for it. I think the hesitation and stress level really went out the window once he kind of responded with such confidence and admiration to just step in there and fill that void. It made the transition very smooth for us."

As cool as Sahnow seemed to his teammates, that's not what was going on inside the defenseman's mind and body.

"Going into it, we're down at breakfast, people are asking, 'How are you doing? Are you ready' I'm like, 'No.'" Sahnow recalled. "I was completely nervous because looking at the other side of the bracket, this team (Tampa Bay) was just as high-scoring as we were so I knew they were going to have good, fast, strong shooters.

"Being the championship match, I didn't want to be the one to let the team down. So I just had my mind set, I'm a defenseman, I can defend the net, I know how to do that. It's just now I have a catching glove and a blocker on instead of my regular gloves.

"It was really nice. They scored four goals in the first period, which really kind of helped comfort me, get my nerves out of the way. 'Cause now I'm looking at the score, I'm like, all right, I can make a mistake and we're still up. If I happen to let one of those simple goals in that a rookie goaltender like myself would, OK, no big deal, we have a three-goal barrier. We have enough speed, they can try and get back another one."

While the players rallied around Sahnow and each other, perhaps the biggest testament to their dedication and determination is how quickly two teams became one.

"It took us a while to get used to playing with each other, being that we're opponents, but we had a great weekend," said Wings forward Susie Kluting, a 20-year veteran of the Sled Wings. "We won all of our games. I scored, I believe, twice, and had a couple assists. We had a great time. It's a lot of fun. We're always good friends off the ice when we are at other tournaments because we go to league tournaments together and stuff. We have good laughs and we always have good camaraderie on and off the ice."

Jones was still soaking in the team's success this week and was a bit giddy and overwhelmed with what the two teams accomplished.

"Really it was pretty surreal," Jones said. "We came into it with big aspirations, big goals set. Obviously merging the two teams, we kind of know each other's games here and there, what we like to do, what we struggle at type thing, so we could really exploit the benefits of everybody and just come together on it. It was really impressive to see everybody jell so fast.

"It took a couple shifts into the first game and it was almost like we were year-long teammates making passes, being in places without even actually having to over-communicate. So it was really awesome to see the jelling so fast and then just everybody being on the same page, going after the same goal, wanting to represent the Wings and Michigan and Detroit so well and bring a championship back. To do that is just unbelievable."

During their late October visit with the Red Wings, several of Detroit's players became fans of the sled hockey team and were overjoyed at their success.

"I'm super proud of them and excited, obviously, not an easy task and they did it, so kudos to them," Mike Green said. "That's pretty rare, that's quite an accomplishment without a (starting) tendy (goaltender). Good for them - great."

Wings coach Jeff Blashill, a former goaltender at Ferris State, took a shot at himself when asked about the Wings sled team winning the championship without their goalie.

"If you look at the tape from '94-'98, Ferris played lots of games without a goalie. There was one dressed but there wasn't really one playing," Blashill deadpanned. "I think Bob Daniels (Ferris State head coach) would tell you he's been through it already and lived it. That's impressive. That's great for that team. I think it's awesome."

Being part of something bigger than yourself is the ultimate reward in life. You're able to put things in perspective and have a sense of accomplishment you can only attain through teamwork and through the support of others.

The Red Wings Foundation and Warrior Hockey helped make the sled hockey players' dreams come true, but it was the players who created the dream.

"I've been around hockey a long time but when they said, 'Red Wings on three - one, two, three, Red Wings.' Then they all took the ice, that was almost goose bump-inducing," said Marie Sly, general manager of the Red Wings sled hockey team. "To know that we had worked for this, to know that here we are in St. Louis, the home of the most recent Stanley Cup champs, representing the Detroit Red Wings was a great feeling. I really can't even put that part of it into words. I actually took a video of them doing that later in the tournament because I wanted those players to remember that moment. I wanted them to remember how they felt when they got to say that again when they won the championship as a Detroit Red Wing."

"We did this for Detroit. I wanted to win this championship to make the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit proud of us," Sahnow said. "I'd really just like to thank the Detroit Red Wings for sending us down there and allowing myself to play on their behalf. And the coaches that decided to throw me in net, I'm glad I make them proud as well."

You're not alone, Jim Sahnow, there are millions of Michiganders that are proud of you and your teammates for being not only champions but role models for everyone.

Congratulations to the Detroit Red Wings sled hockey team and good luck defending your title next year in Anaheim.

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