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Champion on ice

Kingston player brings talent, experience to US sled hockey team in Paralympic Winter Games, starting tomorrow in Vancouver

By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / March 11, 2010

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The XXI Winter Olympics are over, but for Joe Howard and the rest of the US Sled Hockey Team, the Games are just beginning.

Howard is one of 15 sled hockey players representing the United States in the Paralympic Winter Games, which officially kick off tomorrow in Vancouver. On Saturday, Howard and his teammates will suit up for their first game at the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre, formerly known as the UBC Thunderbird Arena, where they will face off against South Korea.

The 43-year-old Kingston resident is the lone Bay Stater on the American squad, and the elder statesman of the Team USA locker room. “One of the old guys,’’ said Howard, with a laugh, in a recent interview.

The veteran forward has been practicing with the best players in the country as well as training on his own at Connell Memorial Rink in Weymouth in preparation for his fourth Paralympic appearance - a feat no other American sled hockey player can claim. USA Hockey says Howard is the only player ever to have skated for all four US Paralympic sled hockey teams.

“We’re counting on him,’’ said head coach Ray Maluta. “He’s got a terrific touch around the net - that’s something you can’t really teach. Joe has it - that touch around the goal. He’ll finish where one of your younger guys might panic. That’s probably one of his biggest assets. He’s a great competitor.’’

Howard, an auto mechanic by trade, first picked up a hockey stick at age 4. He grew up playing the traditional game, lacing up and hitting the ice whenever he could. But that came to an abrupt end in 1982 when he and several friends attempted to jump onto a freight train in Weymouth - a shortcut they took to get home after school. That afternoon, Howard tried hopping on a boxcar that was rolling down the tracks between Hollis and Randolph streets, but he slipped and fell underneath the train. He lost both legs in the accident, and was hospitalized for two months. He was 15.

For years, Howard thought he’d never be able to play hockey again. Then he discovered sled hockey, specifically created for athletes who have lost use of their legs.

Sled hockey - or sledge hockey, as it’s known in other countries - follows the same basic rules of traditional hockey. There are two blades underneath each sled, and each player holds two short sticks. Each stick measures 3 feet long; at one end, there’s a curved blade, used to handle the puck, and the other end has a sharp pick, which the players use to propel their sled on the ice.

“It’s full body contact, there are fights - you have it all. It gets chippy out there,’’ said Howard. “It’s hockey - the only thing that’s different is we’re sitting down.’’

Sled hockey was first played in Sweden in the 1960s, and didn’t catch on in the United States until the late 1980s. It became a medal sport at the 1994 Paralympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway.

Howard started playing in 1996, and the following year he was picked for the national team. He went on to compete at the 1998 Paralympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, where he set a Paralympic record by scoring six goals in one game, and later led the team to its first gold medal at the 2002 Paralympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

The 2002 Games were special to Howard in another way: That was when he proposed to his wife, Carol, on the ice. He served as captain again at the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino, Italy, where his team won the bronze medal.

After nearly a decade of competing at the highest level, Howard decided to take a break from international tournaments and played the next two seasons with the Northeast Passage/UNH Wildcats, a team that competes in the Northeast Sled Hockey League.

Last year, he decided to give the national team another shot, “to see if I could still skate with those kids,’’ he said.

Once again, he made it, emerging as one of the leading scorers of the 2009-2010 season, netting 5 goals and 8 assists in 16 games.

When he’s not on the ice, Howard enjoys working on cars and spending time with Carol and their two dogs, a Rottweiler named Leilani Kai and a French bulldog named Breeze. Until about four years ago, he worked at Sunset Auto Service in Braintree; since then, he has been working freelance, he says, fixing vehicles here and there.

His wife, who will be joining him in Vancouver today, works at Roberts Animal Hospital in Hanover.

In the rink, Howard wears jersey No. 23, plays center, and goes by the nickname “Momo,’’ inspired by Moe Howard of the Three Stooges. It’s a young team - most of his teammates were born after 1985, and some are still in their teens. Coach Maluta estimates the average age is 23.

“The youngest is 16,’’ said Maluta. “We have three high school kids.’’

The players come from all over - Colorado, Iowa, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Texas, and Utah.

They have performed well so far. In January, they traveled to Nagano and won first place at the Japan Para Ice Sledge Hockey Championships. Now the focus is on the games in Vancouver.

Last month the team attended a week-long training camp in Rochester, N.Y., working on drills, lifting weights, and practicing plays, getting ready for this weekend.

“He’s worked very hard on his off-ice training, and he’s worked hard to keep up with those younger players,’’ said Maluta.

Howard and his teammates flew to Colorado Springs last week and arrived in Vancouver Saturday.

More than 40 countries are participating in the Paralympic Winter Games. Eight have teams competing in the sled hockey event: Canada, the Czech Republic, Italy, Japan, Korea, Norway, Sweden, and the US.

After their first game against South Korea, Team USA will play the Czech Republic March 14, and Japan March 16.

The goal is to make it to the gold medal game, which will be played March 20.

As in the Winter Games, in which the US hockey team finished second to the host country, “Canada is going to be our toughest competitors,’’ said Maluta.

The coach is confident the veteran Howard will come through for the team.

“The game has changed - it’s a fair amount faster and more skilled than it was when [Joe] was in Torino,’’ said Maluta. “But I believe Joe has adjusted to that change of pace. He’s proved he’s a warrior, and he’s a competitor. We’re looking for him to lead us and come up with a big goal here and there when we need it.’’

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.

How the game is played

THE PLAYERS:
Paralympic sled hockey competition is open to athletes with physical disabilities that impair the lower part of their bodies, such as amputation, limb loss, spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy, brain injury, or stroke.
Teams comprise 15 players, with six on the ice at one time, including a goaltender.

THE EQUIPMENT:
Players strap themselves into metal sleds that sit atop two skate blades. There’s enough clearance between the ice and the sled to allow the puck to pass underneath.
Each player uses two sticks made of wood, plastic, or aluminum. One end of each stick has a hooked blade for puck handling and shooting, the other end has a pick for pushing off the ice.

THE GAME:
Sled hockey is played in an Olympic-size ice rink, and games consist of three 15-minute periods.
The object of the game is the same as in traditional hockey: to get the puck into the opposing team’s net.
At the Paralympic Games, eight teams will compete in round-robin tournaments, and the top teams will advance to the playoffs.
Special preparations have been made at the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre to accommodate the players. Ice surfaces are being put into the benches and penalty boxes so players can slide their sleds on and off the ice easily, and sitting areas will be outfitted with Lexan (a transparent resin) so players have a clear view of the action on the ice.
Sources: 2010 Vancouver Paralympic Games website, US Paralympic Team website