Legionnaire reflects on Paralympic experience

Luke McDermott didn’t grow up playing hockey. Baseball and basketball were his sports.

But he was introduced to sled hockey during his rehabilitation process after he was injured by an IED while on patrol in Afghanistan in June 2010.

“My physical therapist asked me if I wanted to try it,” said McDermott, a Marine corporal who lost both legs below the knee as a result of the explosion. He was rehabilitating at The Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio when he was introduced to the sport.

Sled hockey was invented in Sweden in the early 1960s when a group of Swedes at a rehabilitation center wanted to find a way to keep playing their beloved sport.

For McDermott, it was an opportunity to find the camaraderie he missed from the Marines.

“The team aspect, being back in a locker room,” he said. “There’s also the physical nature of the sport. …

“And one thing that helped me in rehab, it gave me a break from the rehab process. When you get out on the ice, you forget about the other stuff you’re going through. I would definitely recommend it for anybody (going through the rehab process).”

McDermott earned a spot on the U.S. national team in 2015. The Americans won gold in that year’s world championships and silver in 2017, then won gold at the Paralympic Games last month in South Korea. All three medal games pitted the U.S. against Canada.

In Pyeongchang, Team USA rallied to win its third straight Paralympics gold medal, scoring in the final minute of regulation to tie the game before winning in overtime.

“Winning is kind of an unreal experience,” said McDermott, who went to Sochi in 2014 as a spectator for the U.S. gold medal there and knew he wanted to be a part of that. He said leading up to the gold medal game, he imagined how it might turn out, but “the actual experience is way more than I thought it would be.”

Canada scored late in the first period and took a 1-0 lead into the final minute. U.S. goalie Steve Cash was pulled for an extra skater, but a Canadian shot bounced off the post and helped lead to Declan Farmer’s game-tying goal. Farmer then scored the game-winner with 11:30 left in overtime.

“When it starts getting late and you have to pull your goaltender, it puts a little extra stress on you,” McDermott said. But he and his teammates felt their speed advantage would help them, given the chance, and it did.

While there was plenty of celebrating, there wasn’t much time before getting back to business. McDermott and his teammates also play on club teams — McDermott plays for the sled hockey club team for the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres — and the national championship is coming up next week in Chicago. From there, it’s the Team USA awards ceremony in Washington, a trip to the White House at the end of April, and national team tryouts in July. “Nobody’s guaranteed a spot (on the national team),” McDermott said.

Through it all, McDermott knows he’ll have the support of The American Legion. A member of Post 291 in Greenville, N.Y., McDermott said the Legion “has been huge” in supporting him.

“When I got injured in 2010, the Legion immediately organized some fundraisers for me and my family. They’ve done a lot for me.

“Everybody there is always so great and friendly. It’s really cool to be part of an organization with other veterans.”