Josh Misiewicz grew up a hockey kid in northern Illinois, but after losing his legs to an IED in Afghanistan one of his first thoughts was that he’d never play the sport again.
“You don’t know what to expect” said Misiewicz, who was injured in 2011. “You don’t know anything, if you’re ever going have a girlfriend again, you have no idea.”
Not only did the former Marine find love, Misiewicz also found gold after returning to the ice as a member of Team USA’s sled hockey team, which captured the gold medal this month at the 2018 Paralympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
“The camaraderie of this team, and to play for Team USA and win a gold medal — it’s a huge honor,” he said.
On Friday Misiewicz, along with teammate and fellow Marine veteran Travis Dodson, described how they found both redemption and Olympic glory in the sport that pulled them from depths of despair. They train at Zablocki VA Medical Center near Miller Park in Milwaukee.
“I don’t know where I’d be,” said Dodson, who lost his legs to a grenade in Iraq in 2007.
“I don’t know how my life would have turned out after being injured without hockey.”
Sled hockey, or sledge as it’s called outside the U.S., was invented at a Stockholm, Sweden rehabilitation center in the early 1960s by a group of disabled players who wanted to continue playing the game, according to USA Hockey.
Players sit in specially designed sleds atop two hockey skate blades, and use two sticks instead of one.
The sticks have metal pics on the butt end for players to propel themselves, and goalies wear gloves with metal picks sewn into the backside to allow them to maneuver.
“Those picks just aren’t used for moving on the ice,” said team doctor Mike Uilein, who treats Misiewicz and Dodson at the Adaptive Sports Clinic at the Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Along with injuries from the picks, sled hockey players also cope with muscle overuse and injuries sustained in collisions with rink boards or other players at speeds up to 30 mph.
“That’s a car crash,” Uilein said.
Dodson, 32, grew up in New Mexico, where the closest he ever got to playing hockey was high school golf.
“I didn’t even know the rules,” said Dodson, who saw his first sled hockey game while competing in cross country at the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, where Team USA captured its second consecutive of three total sled hockey gold medals.
“I thought, ‘I’m in the wrong sport. I need to go play that,’ ” Dodson said.
En route to this year’s gold-medal finish, the team beat Japan 10-0, the Czech Republic 10-0 and Korea 8-0 in group play before defeating Italy 10-1 in the semifinals.
But to capture gold they’d have to beat the Canadian team, who they lost to in the 2017 world championship.
“That’s why they were the number one seed coming into the Olympics,” Uilein said.
In the gold medal match, the U.S. team was trailing Canada 1-0 with less than a minute left in regulation play when they tied the game with 37 seconds left.
“When we scored, I mean they were 37 seconds away from winning the gold medal and we were 37 seconds away from losing the gold medal,” Misiewicz said.
Team USA went on to win 2-1 in overtime, capturing an unprecedented third-straight Paralympic gold medal.
“Our emotions were on a high and we knew we were gonna pull it off,” Misiewicz said.
“We had one goal and that was to win gold.”
For now Misiewicz and Dodson will bask in that gold glory before preparing for a run at a fifth team gold meadal.
“There’s more work to do. We want another,” Dodson said.
“This one’s done and over and we’re glad we got it, buts it’s time to get moving on to the next one.”
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