“We’ve often taken Steve for granted,” said Dan Brennan, the team’s general manager. “He’s played so well we didn’t want to bring someone in and screw him up. It had to be the right fit.”
Wolfe had the credentials for the job, but he became that right fit almost by default. A former minor-league goalie, Wolfe started working with sled goalies a few years ago, when a disabled veteran in the Washington area contacted him to ask if he could train at the Laurel, Md., rink where Wolfe’s academy is based.
For all the resources USA Hockey invests in developing able-bodied goaltenders, it had lagged on the sled hockey side until recently. On a USA Hockey goaltending conference call last year, the 25 or so participants were asked if they had experience with sled goalies. “It was pretty much crickets except for me,” Wolfe said in a telephone interview.
To prepare for Cash, Wolfe viewed every clip that he could find. He analyzed not only the few goals that Cash had permitted, but also shots that hit the post or rebounds he did not control. He also watched every interview with Cash that was available on YouTube. Anything that would add insight into Cash’s personality, how he plays and learns.
“I don’t know that I would say I felt pressure to prove myself,” said Wolfe, who did not accompany the team here to the Paralympics, which begin Friday. “I would say I felt pressure to gain his trust. I’m not here to mess up the success he’s had. I’m just here to work together to figure out how to get that maximum result.”
Wolfe noticed how Cash’s style had evolved since 2010, his first Paralympics as starter; he moved more efficiently and quieted his catching motion. At 5 feet 7 inches tall, Cash is somewhat of an anomaly. The position is trending bigger, with the Czech Republic’s Michal Vapenka, at 6-foot-4, the most physically imposing at these Paralympics.
Cash offsets the size disadvantage with agility, speed and an economy of movement and equipment. Unlike many other single-amputees — Cash lost his right leg to bone cancer at age 3 — he protects himself with discreet shin pads, not the bulky versions that allow a sprawled goalie to eliminate the lower part of the ice.
“The more I put on, the slower I feel,” Cash said. “I wear a youth-XL chest protector that was probably built in the late ’90s, and it’s what I’ve stuck with because it allows me to move better.”
Able-bodied goalies, Wolfe said, are taught to skate with their hands in a semi-stationary position as they track the puck. In sled hockey, officially known as para ice hockey, goalies still transfer weight from one side to the other as they move across the crease, but they also must use their arms for propulsion. One holds a stick with a spiked end for pushing. As he repositions, Cash must be mindful to keep the glove in his left hand up at the same time.
What distinguishes Cash from his peers, besides an intuitive understanding of the sport’s nuances, is his body control, his ability to shift in a way that does not leave him vulnerable to quick shots.
Still, Cash and Wolfe experimented with different techniques, adjusting Cash’s balance and body weight and the way he would lower his hands to the ice. Because sticks in sled hockey are so much shorter, shots in even world-class competitions do not achieve the same velocity as in the N.H.L. But much less time is needed to release the puck. And unlike able-bodied players who move the puck from their forehand to their backhand, sled players have two sticks, so they can fire from either side — often after passing it to themselves beneath their sled — with equal precision.
Wolfe set up GoPro cameras in the crease to monitor Cash’s positioning, to see if he was moving off the post too soon, for instance, or taking an imprecise angle. Although Cash’s capacity for tracking the puck is as good as, if not better than, any standing goalie Wolfe said he had ever seen, they focused on making sure his eyes were square to the shooter.
Cash would start by seeing five shots taken at about 60 miles per hour. If Cash’s technique was sound, Wolfe would increase the speed in roughly 5 m.p.h. increments.
“We’re talking about something moving 80 miles an hour,” Wolfe said. “The farther where your tracking gets to the side, like your peripheral vision, the more your ability to track accurately diminishes. If you’re talking 100 shots to the glove, maybe this will let you catch one or two more, and that’s a huge difference.”
They discussed other nuances, such as setting the puck for defensemen or pushing it up ice to generate offense, as well as mental exercises that Cash has adopted as part of his preparation. Without much ice time together — only two camps, in October outside Charlotte, N.C., and in November in Madison, Wis. — they have communicated often via text and email, and will continue to do so over these Paralympics. The Americans’ first game is Sunday against Japan.
“He’s been kind of the voice in my head,” Cash said. “If I find myself being too timid in net, that tells me I need to come out a little more. I can picture him telling me what to do to get ready and how to prepare.”
How much longer they will work together is unclear. Wolfe is busy with his own program, which he said encompasses more than 15 youth organizations and 500 players. But he expects to remain active in at least one facet of sled goaltending: After making the best sled goalie even better, he wants to identify Cash’s successor.
“It’s not even finding him — as if you’re going to go out into the woods one day and find him,” Wolfe said. “There’s probably not a Steve Cash that’s ready-made. We need to create one and help somebody become that.”