As Nikko Landeros (Johntown, Colo.), Kevin McKee (Chicago, Ill.) and Josh Pauls (St. Louis, Mo.) continue to chase Paralympic gold, they’re rewarded with the opportunity to play the sport they’ve loved far before they began strapping into sleds.
Landeros, a Colorado native and bilateral amputee after an accident as a senior in high school, grew up an avid Avalanche fan. As a child, Landeros grew up playing youth hockey and still cherishes the memories skating outdoors and emulating his NHL role medals.
“I’ve been an Avalanche fan since I was a kid,” said Landeros, who’s looking for his third consecutive Paralympic gold in South Korea. “I remember being on the pond and pretending I was on the Avalanche in the Stanley Cup Finals. It was a blast being out there with my friends.”
At that time, it wasn’t about winning gold medals or championships. It was simply centered around enjoying every moment on the ice with his friends.
“Whether it was on the ice or the pond we were always competitive, but at the end of the day I was like any other kid not caring about anything other than having fun.”
McKee, a Chicago native who was born with sacral agenesis, grew up a diehard fan of his hometown Chicago Blackhawks and continues to watch stars like Patrick Kane for inspiration on his own game.
“I definitely try to craft my game similarly to Patrick Kane and players on the team,” claimed Mckee, a 2014 Paralympic gold medalist with Team USA. “I had the opportunity to play with Kane and Vinnie Hinostroza at a charity game last summer. It was an unbelievable experience and they’re obviously great hockey players, but even better people.”
After the 2018 U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team roster was unveiled on Jan. 1, the players and staff moved to Chicago, where it held its pre-Paralympic residency and training program. During its time there, the team was recognized at the United Center on Feb. 15 as part of the Blackhawks ‘Hockey is For Everyone Night’.
“Continuing to have that interaction with not only the Blackhawks, but with many NHL teams, is really amazing,” said McKee. “It makes you realize how fortunate you are to be able to play hockey at the highest level and go for a gold medal here at the Paralympics.”
The NHL also had a major impact on Pauls, who grew up in New Jersey before moving to St. Louis. The Team USA captain continues to follow the Devils and Blues as a passionate fan.
“I love hockey and the NHL is one of the easiest ways to stay involved in the game,” said Pauls, a 2010 and 2014 gold medalist who was born without tibia bones in both legs. “It’s really cool to have something in common with those players being at the highest level in our sports.”
Having not been afforded the opportunity to play stand-up hockey, Pauls found himself in an instant love affair with sled hockey after originally getting involved in 2002. The Hockey Is For Everyone Ambassador urges other disabled athletes who are considering the sport to give it a chance.
“I don’t know where I’d be without sled hockey today. As the old saying goes, ‘you don’t know until you try it.’ I urge everyone to try this sport, even if it’s just once.”