Kevin McKee has spent the past four years using a gold medal as motivation.
The Davenport native had to sit in the stands at the 2014 Paralympic Games and watch as the U.S. sled hockey team defeated Russia 1-0 in the gold medal game in Sochi, Russia.
As one of 17 players in the country selected to be on the team, he was already one of the best in the world but when crunch time came, McKee wasn't one of the 15 players dressed as the U.S. won its second straight gold medal and third overall.
He was on the ice for the medal ceremony but vowed to be there when it mattered most four years later.
"That was probably the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life," McKee said. "I was so honored to be on that team and I was still one of the 17 best in the world but it was really hard for me. I remember sitting there, telling myself, 'I'm never going to let this happen again. I'm going to work my butt off the next couple years and show the coaches I can play.'"
McKee, who was born with caudal regression syndrome, a congenital disorder in the lower spine, has developed as part of the U.S. national team and figures to now be a big piece of this year's Paralympic team. The U.S. is looking for its third straight gold medal and fourth overall when the 2018 Paralympic Games kick off Thursday in PyeongChang, South Korea.
McKee and the U.S. team open preliminary play Saturday against Japan.
"We’re definitely confident, we’ve had a lot of success the past three or four years," McKee said. "We’re deeper at the forward position and defense, we have the best goaltending in the world so we’re definitely confident that if we do our job right, we’ll come out of there with the gold."
This year, McKee has played in all 12 international games with the team, scoring six goals and tallying eight assists for 14 points. He is one goal and one point away from matching his single season career highs.
Four years ago, McKee played in 10 total games, scoring just one goal.
"He was a big part of 2014 but I would say, really hard work and pure perseverance, he's gotten stronger, he's got good vision on the ice and things evolve," U.S. head coach Guy Gosselin said. "We can rely on him to be a play maker and he's got a heckuva shot. He's really refined his skills.
"He didn’t necessarily have a chip on his shoulder, he just wanted to improve as a hockey player and he’s definitely done that."
McKee's development over the last four years has led to some strong accolades for the 28-year-old. He holds the Team USA record with eight assists in a single World Sled Hockey Challenge in 2016 and his 32 total points are tied for most by a U.S. player in World Sled Hockey Challenge history.
He's played 92 games in his career, scoring 35 goals and adding 46 assists for 81 points.
"Before I don’t know if it was nerves or how fast the game was but now it’s really slowed down for me," McKee said. "I’m getting a lot better, just watching games over and over I’m getting to the point where I can see the play before it happens and I think that’s stepped my game up and made me a lot better player."
McKee's development has helped the U.S. team has continued its dominance of the sport. In international play, the U.S. has gone 42-3-1 since the last Paralympics.
The only setbacks the U.S. has faced in that time have come to Canada, including a loss in the gold medal game in last year's Para Sled Hockey World Championship, a precursor to the Paralympics that was held in Gangneung, South Korea. That loss means the U.S. enters the Paralympics as the No. 2 seed behind Canada.
Last year was a difficult year all around for the team. Head coach Jeff Sauer passed away in February and Bettendorf native Andy Yohe, who captained the last two Paralympic gold-medal winning teams, retired for good after the loss to Canada.
Gosselin was named head coach in June after serving as an assistant from 2011-15.
"It was definitely hard for us, last year was a little bit harder just because it was so sudden," McKee said of Sauer's passing. "I think we all came together, especially after losing last year and we rebooted, definitely working harder."
Using those setbacks as motivation, the hockey team has rolled through this year's international preparations leading up to the Paralympics. The U.S. went undefeated to win the World Sled Hockey Challenge in December and didn't allow a goal in winning the Turin Para Ice Hockey International Challenge in January.
The team has outscored its opponents 70-9 during this cycle but isn't taking anything lightly, thanks to a 3-0 loss to Canada in its last international game, part of a two-game border series with the rival last month.
"You can always learn from any game you play in," Gosselin said. "Our guys didn’t come to play and they played lazy and when you play that type of game against a strong opponent, you’re going to end up on the wrong side of the stick. I think it was maybe a bit of a wake up call and a blessing in disguise."
The way the U.S. has been playing, it's hard not to think of it as the favorite but Canada is always lurking, as shown last month.
"I think getting beat against Canada showed we can be beat and there’s a little more hunger these past few weeks," McKee said. "It was definitely a reminder that we’ve got to play our game and not let Canada dictate the game and play their style because we tried playing the way they played and that’s just not our team. We’re learning from that and getting back to playing our game."
The growth of the game continues to astound McKee. The 2014 Paralympics sold over 316,000 tickets, 86,000 more than the 2010 Games in Vancouver. The gold-medal game between the U.S. and Russia was broadcast on NBC Sports for the first time in the event's history and NBC has already announced plans to broadcast 94 hours of the games on television, double the amount four years ago.
"It kind of gives you goosebumps to know that people back home are going to be able to watch you and cheer you on," McKee said. "It’s pretty cool."