When the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team opens pool-play today at the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Ice Sledge World Championships in Goyang, Korea, a third consecutive title is the aim for Team USA.
“Our goal is to defend the gold medal that we won in Norway,” said team captain Taylor Lipsett. “Last year, we became the first team ever to go back-to-back at the world championships. This year, we want to be the first to go back-to-back-to-back. We never go into a tournament looking for a silver medal.”
In 2012, Team USA became the first to win consecutive titles when it defended the 2009 crown with a 5-1 victory over Korea in Hamar, Norway.
While the historical aspect is a motivator for Team USA in Goyang, the priority is to maintain the No. 1 ranking heading into Sochi, where the team will try to become the first ever to defend a Paralympic Winter Games title. In 2010, the U.S. became the first to win two Paralympic gold medals, the first claimed in 2002.
“Making history is in the back of our minds, but the immediate goal is to maintain the No. 1 ranking we have, which is important for us to have Sochi,” said Lipsett, who started playing sled hockey in 2002. The home team has advantages which include matching the opponent’s line.
“The No. 1 seed is huge in hockey,” he said. “When you are the No. 1, you have a competitive advantage that can make a difference in those close games.”
The No. 1 seed also has the opportunity to gain momentum in a tournament by playing lower seeds first.
“We respect all of our opponents, no matter what seed either of us have going into a game,” Lipsett said. “We have seen some very close games when we’re No. 1. It happened to us at last year’s world championships against Estonia when they took us to a shootout.”
Team USA takes on Sweden tonight at 8:15 p.m. EDT to kick-off the championship. All tournament games will be streamed live from Goyang at youtube.com/paralympicsporttv/.
“Sweden will be a tough opponent,” Lipsett said.
But ultimately Lipsett thinks the toughest obstacle on the road to gold will be a familiar foe.
“Canada is definitely our toughest competitor,” Lipsett said. “Team USA/Canada at any level of hockey is super intense. The rivalry produces some of the best hockey games ever played.”
Team USA maintains a record of 10-2-0 on the season, with a loss to Canada in pool-play at the World Sledge Challenge and another loss to Canada in a three-game series Feb. 14-16 in Rockland, Ontario.
“We hold the upper hand with Canada, which is good for our confidence,” Lipsett said.
Canada and the U.S. have won four of the last five world titles.
Korea, defending silver medalists, will also be an obstacle en route to history.
The U.S. has defeated Korea twice during the 2012-13 season, a 3-0 victory in pool-play at the USA Hockey Sled Cup and a 5-2 win in the championship game. Team USA also won the World Sledge Hockey Challenge in December in Calgary, Alberta, an event that included Japan and Norway.
“When I first started playing, South Korea was never even in tournaments,” Lipsett said. “Now they are the world silver medalists. It is incredible how their program has grown over the years.”
Czech Republic, Italy, Norway and Russia are also competing in Goyang.
“For the first six or seven years of my career, it was us, Canada and Norway winning the medals in every event,” he said.
Since the debut of sled hockey at the Lillehammer 1994 Paralympic Winter Games, only five countries have appeared on the podium. Only Sweden (1994), Norway (1998), Canada (2006) and the U.S. have ever claimed gold.
"Now there is so much more competition than there has ever been,” Lipsett said.