U.S. Sled Hockey coach David Hoff noticed one of his players, Noah Grove, leaving after a team breakfast on Tuesday.
“One of our other young guys was with him,” Hoff said of Grove, an Urbana High School grad. “And I was thinking, ‘That was Noah four years ago,’ a 17- or 18-year-old kid at that time.”
In 2018, the then 18-year-old Grove was the youngest member of the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey team that won the gold medal at the Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
And now that he’s surrendered his title as the U.S. team’s youngest player, Grove is even more well-equipped to help the U.S. retain its title as the world’s best Para hockey team.
Grove, 22, will try to help the U.S. capture its record fourth straight para ice hockey gold medal at the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing, China.
The opening ceremony will be held March 4. In the meantime, Grove’s been training for his second stint on his sport’s grandest stage.
“I’m pretty excited, get to work with some of the best guys in the world and hopefully bring home gold again,” said Grove, who was in Nashville for the U.S. team’s residence program while being interviewed in late January.
Grove is far from the most seasoned veteran on the U.S. roster, which is evenly split between players under 28 and over 28. But unlike in 2018, he’s been through the Paralympics preparation process and has competed in high-pressure contests at the Games.
“I think I’ve definitely been more prepared for the workload and kind of the mindset going into the residence program and the months leading up the Paralympics,” he said. “Definitely ready.”
Hoff sees a player coming into his own.
“Even though he’s still in his early 20s, you view him more as a veteran player, someone who’s got some experience,” the coach said. “He’s played in a lot of international competitions now.
“I think as a young player, he’s starting to really figure out what his strengths are as a player and being able to be effective as player because he takes advantage of those,” Hoff said.
Grove’s most noticeable skill is his skating, an asset that prompted the U.S. to give the longtime forward some reps as a defenseman, a position of need.
“With my skating ability, not a lot of people can get by me,” Grove said. “But it’s just something that we’ve been taking reps at and been kind of experimenting with, and we’ll see how it goes at the Paralympics.”
He’s also worked on his puck handling. But Hoff has been particularly impressed with intangibles, calling him “a sharp young man” who fully grasped the team concept of hockey.
“I think what really makes him good is he can be a complementary player that makes the other guys he’s playing with better,” Hoff said. “I think he understands that part of it, understanding it’s not one person doing something out there, it’s a group of three or group of five ... it’s his understanding of the game that’s really grown and is a strength of his.”
That understanding process began when Grove, who had his left leg amputated when he was 5 because of bone cancer, was introduced to sled hockey with the Bennett Blazers, which is part of the Bennett Institute Physically Challenged Sports Program of Kennedy Krieger.
Founded by Gerry and Gwena Herman, Bennett offers numerous programs, including wheelchair basketball, wheelchair softball and swimming. Gerry Herman remembered Grove trying a few different sports.
“Then he kind of latched on to hockey. You could tell he loved it, but he needed work,” Herman said. “So he basically took it upon himself to find the time and the effort to practice and get better. In one offseason, he made like leaps and bounds, from a below average player to one of the top players in the country.”
Herman said Grove played with the Bennett Blazers for about three years. The coach has had so many players eventually reach the Paralympics, he has trouble keeping count. He said Bennett gives players with such aspirations a base and knows where to send them for Paralympic-level training.
As a 15-year-old, Grove even played for the USA Warriors, comprised of wounded war veterans, against full-grown men, a move meant to provide a suitable challenge for a rapidly improving player.
After earning a spot on the U.S. Paralympic team, Grove focused on getting faster on his sled, which sits on two hockey skate blades that are right next to each other. He turns the sled by leaning and propels himself with two hockey sticks, which each have a blade for shooting on one end and a metal pick for pushing off the ice on the other end. Balance is a must.
Grove contributed right away at the Games, scoring a goal in the U.S. team’s first prelim game against Japan. Grove had one goal and two assists to help U.S. beat Italy in the semifinals, and he saw action in the the team’s 2-1, overtime win over Canada in the gold medal game.
In the fall of 2019, Grove transferred from the University of New Hampshire to Towson University, where he’s majoring in family and human services and took the introduction to child life track. As he did four years ago, Grove took off the semester that coincided with the Paralympics.
Like his teammates, Grove has to try out for his spot on the team each summer. And the U.S. sled hockey team had to navigate obstacles thrown up by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We didn’t have as many organized camps,” Grove said. “We’re all like family, so we talk pretty much every day even when we’re not around each other and we were able to coordinate our own training sessions, where a bunch of guys would come in and train for a week or two and we were able to still stay on top of our game during COVID.”
Canada and Russia figure to be the U.S. team’s biggest competition, as usual, in Beijing. But Grove felt like his team was up for any challenges it might confront.
“The people who have been on the team even longer than me will have told you that ever since they made the team, it’s gotten better and better,” Grove said. “That’s what we’re shooting for is to get better every single year.”
In that case, the team — as well as Grove — is still on the rise.
“Usually when you get serious, it takes 10 years to reach your peak,” Herman said. “So he has more time left. He’s already kind of up there, and I guess he can get better.”
Go Noah! You make Frederick proud.
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