From the comfort of his Bettendorf living room, Andy Yohe drank in the atmosphere at last week's USA-Canada Olympic gold-medal hockey game and dreamed of a similar experience.
In two weeks, the dream could come true.
Yohe, 31, captains a United States Ice Sledge Hockey team that will carry the No. 1 seed into the 2010 Paralympics starting Friday in Vancouver, B.C.
Seeded second is a Canadian crew determined to avenge a semifinal loss to the eventual gold-medal-winning U.S. squad in last year's World Championships in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia.
"We would love to play them in front of their home crowd and have a chance to beat them," Yohe said early last week before flying to Colorado Springs, Colo., to join the U.S. Paralympics contingent.
"We were already pretty aware of what the atmosphere was going to be like," the veteran defenseman said. "Obviously, the Canadians think they own the game and it is going to be a predominantly Canadian crowd. We are ready to go up there and take it to them in their own house."
Primed for 2010
Yohe has been pointing toward the Vancouver Games almost from the moment he collected a Paralympics bronze medal with his U.S. mates four years ago in Torino, Italy.
Sledge hockey typically is the most popular of the five Winter Games offerings for disabled athletes, and Yohe knows it will be well-received in Canada, birthplace of hockey.
He also set his sights on Vancouver because his wife, parents and a number of friends easily will be able to join him there.
The 2010 Paralympics will start with opening ceremonies at B.C. Place on Friday night.
"The opening ceremony was absolutely phenomenal in Torino, and I expect it will be again in Vancouver," Yohe said. "Walking out of that tunnel with 60,000 people cheering? It's an amazing experience. Definitely addictive. It was sold out in Torino. They expect it to be sold out in Vancouver."
Yohe said the Paralympics have grown in profile in recent years, when they were joined to Olympic sites.
"The awesome part about the Paralympics is every athlete has his or her own story to tell," Yohe said. "Whereas, the regular Olympics, a lot of those people have worked hard, but they might not have come as far."
Late to a sled
Yohe's story is one of those, although he chooses not to dwell on the past.
In September of 1994, he lost parts of both legs when he fell beneath a moving train he was attempting to jump aboard in Bettendorf.
The mishap seemed to have ended Yohe's hopes of playing hockey at a highly competitive level.
Although the then 15-year-old had played ice hockey only on Q-C ponds and lagoons, he was part of a traveling roller hockey squad and had developed a passion for the sport.
"I would like to think I would have been a good player, but I just have no idea," he said. "I try not to look back on it. Eyes on the present and the future. There's no way it could be more fun than I am having right now."
That said, Yohe purposely opted not to go near a hockey sled for nine years, choosing instead to try golf, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair football.
"The idea of getting back on the ice and not being at the level I was before didn't appeal to me at all," he said. "I didn't think I would enjoy playing a slower game."
Seven years ago, he joined a recreational sled hockey league at the Quad-City Sports Center. His life was changed.
"Once I tried it out, I realized I was wrong," he said. "It was a blast."
In a matter of weeks, Yohe had the hang of the game.
In a matter of months, he was a member of a traveling sled hockey team sponsored by the Chicago Blackhawks.
In a matter of years, he was a member of the national team.
"Glad I didn't wait any longer," he said.
The bronze medal in Torino helped launch the growth of the U.S. national effort.
Later in 2006, USA Hockey, the same sanctioning body that leads the U.S. Olympic movement, took over the sledge hockey team from the U.S. Olympic Committee.
The impact was significant, and last year's golden World Championships only were the start.
"They have done an excellent job of getting us the proper staffing and the proper financial support to get athletic trainers and sports science guys to give us workouts," Yohe said. "It has been an awesome, awesome deal."
Coach Ray Maluta, a former NHL defenseman who took over the U.S. sledge team in 2007, completed the picture.
Before last year's World Championships, he recruited six players - Yohe included - to join a core of three players already living near Rochester, N.Y. That allowed for year-round training.
This year, the 15-man team employed personal strength trainers before convening for a recent pre-Paralympics camp.
"Physically, they are in great shape, and mentally, they are ready to go," Maluta said.
Although the eight-team Paralympic field will include a Norwegian bunch the U.S. needed an overtime goal from Yohe to beat in the World Championships gold-medal game last year, all eyes are on Canada.
The hosts are the No. 2 seed to Norway's No. 3, and had gone five years without losing a tournament, a run the U.S. ended with a 2-1 semifinal win in Czechoslovakia.
"If it's Canada and the United States in the gold-medal game," Maluta said, "it will be a one-goal game, probably in overtime and then a shootout."
Such a matchup would echo both the men's and women's Olympic gold-medal games last month, but Yohe and friends hope to flip the script.
In a recent Sports Illustrated article, Yohe noted, the Canadians targeted Paralympic gold alongside the Olympic one-two.
"They feel like if it's not a sweep, it has been a disappointment," he said. "We want to take that away from them."
Yohe: This could be it
A Paralympics gold medal could be only the second-most special thing Andy Yohe will hold in 2010.
In June, Yohe and his wife, Katie, will welcome their first child. That's why Yohe suspects this month's Paralympics will be his final endeavor as a competitive sledge hockey player.
"I feel like fatherhood might be my next sport that I take up," Yohe said.
Yohe, 31, recently moved back to Bettendorf after spending more than a year prepping for the Paralympics in Rochester, N.Y. Beyond Vancouver, he said he might look to put his business degree to use.
"It's hard to work on your career when you are taking 60 days off a year," he said of his hockey schedule. "I am going to focus on whatever job I get."
And while he left a little wiggle room for a potential change of heart, Yohe said playing in the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, doesn't have quite the lure of playing near home in North America had this year.
"I don't have any drive to go there," he said. "And it takes a lot of drive to want to work four years for that goal."
Q: What are the Paralympics and when did they start?
A: The Paralympics, a high-level competition for disabled athletes, turned 50 this year. The Winter Paralympics debuted in 1976.
Q: Who competes, and in what?
A: In Vancouver, athletes from six disability groups - amputees, those with Cerebral Palsy, those with intellectual disabilities, wheelchair-bound athletes, visually impaired athletes and others who do not fit those categories - will compete in five disciplines: Alpine skiing, sledge hockey, biathlon, cross country skiing and wheelchair curling.
Q: Are they televised?
A: The Games, which will run from Friday through March 21, will not be televised in the U.S., although an NBC cable arm, Universal Sports, will show nightly Paralympic recaps. Events will be shown live at paralympicsports.tv. Two U.S. sledge hockey games - a pool-play finale vs. Japan on March 16 and a potential March 20 gold-medal match - may be shown in full at the Paralympic Web site.
Q: How many athletes will compete?
A: A total of 650 athletes from 44 countries are expected to compete in Vancouver.