By Lesley Dawson
In early July, less than four months after earning a gold medal at the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia, U.S. sled hockey star Josh Sweeney hit the ice at Mountain View Ice Arena in Vancouver, Wash., for the first time. In March, Sweeney scored the game-winner in Sochi, the lone goal that lifted the defending champion U.S. team over the Russians for the gold medal.
No stranger to hockey, the Phoenix native played roller hockey in middle school and transitioned to ice hockey in high school. After high school, Sweeney joined the Marine Corps and during his second tour in Afghanistan, he stepped on an improvised explosive device and lost both of his legs as a result of his injuries.
Despite the life-altering injuries, Sweeney knew he would be able play sports again. He heard about sled hockey while completing his rehabilitation in San Antonio, Texas only a few months after his injury. Six months later, Sweeney became the newest member of the national team thanks to his hockey instincts and indomitable work ethic.
“I never really realized what I was capable of until I tried out for the national team. They pushed me even further and helped me improve my game,” Sweeney said. “That’s when I realized I could be a lot better than I thought I could.”
Though he hadn’t heard of sled hockey until his rehabilitation after his injury, the sport was integral to many aspects of his recovery process and his overall improvement as a player.
“Sled hockey is a sport that is mentally, emotionally, and physically frustrating. It emotionally helped my recovery because I was able to release a lot of stress while having fun. Physically, you have a lot of arm strength so a lot of the injuries that I had, I really had to forget about and just push through. You get on the ice, and you have your buddies out there, you really push yourself harder than you normally would.”
On Wednesday, Sweeney will attend ESPN’s annual ESPY Awards in Los Angeles where he will receive the inaugural Pat Tillman Award for Service. The award, which he calls “the icing on an already huge cake”, is given in memory of former Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman who left the NFL so he could enlist in the army with his brother Kevin. Sweeney, who at age 27 has already earned a Purple Heart, is the perfect candidate.
“I do this because I love playing hockey and I love being with the guys and just having fun, so when they called and said that I would be receiving this award, I was so honored and grateful that I was chosen,” the Paralympian said. “I never saw it coming; I just work hard and try to do my best, so it really took me by surprise.”
Sweeney’s newest project is to get a sled hockey team started in the Portland area, where he recently moved with his wife Amber. He not only feels that a Portland team could be quite solid, but also that Portland is the perfect area to have a sled hockey team.
“I feel like the community support in Portland and the Portland metro area would be through the roof and that’s something that, when you have a sled hockey team, really makes or breaks you.”
Sweeney has been partnering with the Winterhawks to raise money for the sled hockey equipment needed to bring a team to the Portland area. There are sled hockey leagues across the United States in the Midwest and on the East Coast, along with teams in California, Phoenix, and most recently a new team in Seattle.
“I think I’m most excited because this is really kind of uncharted territory and I feel like there could be a ton of people and a ton of individuals that would love the sport and get a lot out of it just as much as I have, if not more.”
Sweeney’s Olympic experience showed him not only that being an internationally-ranked athlete is a possibility, but that he also has the skill set needed to help others achieve their goals.
“I just work hard and I feel like if anybody wants to do it they can do it with the right tools and right support. Quite truly, I feel like I could easily get somebody to the position I’m at today if they want to put in the work,” Sweeney said. “I’m willing to help anybody that wants that kind of help so I think that’s what I’m excited to bring here and hopefully we can have some of the best sled hockey players in the world here.”