When sled hockey made its Paralympic debut in 1994, Team USA was not one of the five countries to compete. Four years later, in Nagano, Team USA finished sixth of seven teams. Heading into Salt Lake City 2002, the U.S. had finished dead last at the previous world championships and only qualified a team to the Paralympics because it was the host country.
The 2002 Paralympic Sled Hockey Team consisted of mostly new players, building from the ground up by head coach Rick Middleton. Middletown had spent 14 seasons in the NHL and had recently taken over the U.S. squad.
“I didn’t know that brand of hockey,” said Middleton. “I didn’t even know what sled hockey was.”
Middleton’s team would go undefeated in Salt Lake City, winning the gold, the first for the United States. Since 2002, the U.S. has become the most dominant sled hockey team in the world, winning four straight Paralympic golds with its most recent at Beijing 2022.
The sport of sled hockey has grown immensely in the United States. In 2006, USA Hockey began sponsoring the national sled hockey team and a grassroots program began, creating new teams across the country, along with a national development camp.
The popularity and success of sled hockey in the U.S. is owed to that 2002 team. The group continues to blaze trails, becoming the first Paralympic team inducted into the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame, 20 years after their historic gold.