At 35, two-time U.S. Paralympian Andy Yohe returns to competitive sled hockey on Sunday at the World Sledge Hockey Challenge in Toronto, Canada. His teammates are as young as 15.
Brody Roybal is used to being on a team with people older than him.
At 15, Roybal of Northlake, Ill., is the youngest member of the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team. Born a bilateral amputee, he began playing sled hockey at age 7. On his first club team, the Chicago Hornets, his oldest teammate was 21.
Today, Roybal’s oldest teammate is Andy Yohe of Bettendorf, Iowa, a two-time Paralympian at age 35.
“Sled hockey is a little different from able-bodied hockey in that able-bodied teams play with people that are usually the same age as them,” Roybal said. “But everyone on the U.S. Sled Hockey National Team plays on a club team somewhere in the U.S. that is ages 15-60.”
Roybal and 16-year-old Declan Farmer from Tampa, Fla., are relatively new to the elite ranks of sled hockey, yet they are already making an impact on some of their veteran teammates.
“It’s awesome to be here while these guys are just starting out,” Yohe said. “Because I know those two specifically could end up being the best sled hockey players in the world at the rate they’re going, being that young and as talented as they are.”
The diverse group is set to begin its season Dec. 1 at the World Sledge Hockey Challenge in Toronto, Canada. The week-long tournament will be the Team USA’s first opportunity to come together in competition against other international squads, as the Canadian, Russian and South Korean national teams will all be in attendance.
Canada is ranked No. 1 in the world after beating Team USA at the 2013 world championships.
Yohe, who was part of the gold-medal-winning U.S. team at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, said this weekend’s tournament is just one step closer to what he hopes will be a second gold at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in March.
“Win or lose, this tournament is not going to mean a lot other than just kind of knowing where we’re at and what we need to work on,” Yohe said. “And to build as a team, that’s really the most important part. Because once March comes, we’ve got to play together and for each other; if not, we’re not going to get that gold medal.”
No country has ever earned back-to-back gold medals in sled hockey at the Paralympic Winter Games.
Yohe is returning from a three-season hiatus from sled hockey, but his love for the sport has only grown. As team captain for the current squad, Yohe hopes to share what he’s learned over the years, preparing his younger teammates for the momentous experience that is the Paralympic Winter Games.
“It’s really a whole different world than any competition they’ve ever been a part of,” Yohe said of his teammates that have never been to the Paralympics. “There’s tons more media and tons more pressure, and the more you can help them visualize what that will be like, I think it’s easier for people to cope.”
While Yohe is playing an important role in the development and mentoring of the young players, he hopes they will continue in the sport for long after he has retired.
“The more you can educate those guys on what a good teammate is, the better the team is going to be for the future,” Yohe said. “Those guys are going to be the leaders of this team for the next five to 10 Paralympic Games. I mean, I assume those guys could play until they’re 35. That puts them at 20 more years, so they could have maybe another five Paralympic Games in them or something.”
Though Roybal and Farmer’s talent is undeniable, they admire their more experienced teammates’ ease out on the ice.
“I notice that with the veterans on the team that have been to multiple Paralympics or have been on the team for a few years, they’re pretty patient out on the ice,” Farmer said. “They know the game very well, and that’s what the younger players who are less experienced need to improve on to get to that level. I really look up to them that way.”
That wisdom pertains to more than just hockey, too. Farmer said his teammates, especially those that have served in the military, are valuable mentors in all areas of life. The national team boasts U.S. Army Sergeant Jen Lee, as well as three retired service members in Rico Roman, Josh Sweeney and Paul Schaus.
“One thing that has a positive effect on Declan and I as the youngest players on the team is having learned so much from the older players, not just about sled hockey, but also about life,” Roybal said. “We have four members of the military, and they share their stories with us; it’s awesome to know guys that were serving our country while we were playing on our youth teams.”
But the younger guys might be able to teach Yohe a few things, too.
“I don’t even know what it’s like to be in high school when there’s social media – Facebook, Twitter and stuff like that,” Yohe said. “We didn’t even have cell phones in high school, so I can’t even imagine.”