David Eustace’s Paralympic journey began in a Springfield hockey rink atop a deconstructed shower chair.
Griffin LaMarre’s began with a flier from Haverhill Youth Hockey.
Kyle Zych’s started with a recommendation from a family friend.
When the 2022 Paralympics Games begin in Beijing on Friday, those three, now in their 20s, will don red-white-and-blue sweaters as members of Team USA’s sled hockey team.
“I remember talking to them about reaching the pinnacle of the sport when they were young teenagers and, now, to see them doing it? It’s pretty special,” said Danny Santos, who has played with all three for Northeast Passage, an adaptive sports and recreation program at the University of New Hampshire.
For Eustace, a 6-foot-1-inch, 22-year-old defender, it began one afternoon in 2004. He was 5 years old and his mother, Andrea, and sister, Nicole, were picking him up from Stoneham’s Central Elementary School when a car drove up on the sidewalk and crashed into a crowd of children, shattering Eustace’s left leg, which had to be amputated above the knee. He used a wheelchair for close to a year.
When he was 8, his father, Paul, persuaded him to try sled hockey. The game, also known as sledge hockey or para ice hockey, was invented by a group of Swedes at a rehabilitation center in the 1960s, according to USA Hockey. The sport was added to the 1994 Paralympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway. Since then, the United States has won four gold medals, including the last three.
The game is essentially hockey on sleds, which have two blades fastened on the bottom. Players carry sticks in both hands equipped with picks in the handles to propel them forward.
“It’s the same rules, same sport, same speed, same net,” David Eustace said. “We’re just sitting in a sled with two blades underneath us.”
Paul Eustace noted one difference.
“When you get hit against the boards in stand-up hockey, you’re hitting the plexiglass,” he said. “When you get hit against the boards in sled hockey, you go into a solid board.”
At his first clinic, David Eustace insisted on playing standing up for two practices before relenting and trying a sled, which had been fashioned out of a shower chair.
“I wasn’t a huge fan,” he said.
But there was one thing sled hockey offered that Eustace had been craving while struggling to keep up with his friends in basketball and baseball.
“It was a team thing,” Paul Eustace said. “He got to be in the locker room with the team. He was just happy to be there.”
While those first days were inauspicious — “There was a point when I was looking at David on the ice and wondering if he would ever score a goal,” Paul said — David grew feverish with his training, putting down pads on the hardwood living room floor and practicing with a golf ball.
“You don’t get to this level of sled hockey without a lot of hard work,” Paul Eustace said. “He’s always looking for ice time. He goes to five different rinks around the area to work out.”
By age 12, David Eustace was promoted to Northeast Passage’s high-level adult team, where he joined a 14-year-old goalie from Haverhill named Griffin LaMarre.
LaMarre, now 25, was born with spastic paraplegia, a hereditary condition that affects the strength of his legs and his balance. It began to surface with a limp when he was 6 and progressed until he had to give up soccer at age 10. He continued to play baseball and lacrosse through middle school before becoming the lacrosse team manager for four seasons at Haverhill High.
While he has been competing in sled hockey since age 11, LaMarre’s first Paralympic dream was skiing. He grew up shredding the slopes at Attitash and Sunday River, but during his freshman year he broke both his legs in a skiing accident. That same year, at age 15, he made the Team USA development sled hockey team, one rung below the national team.
But LaMarre was stuck behind two accomplished national team goalies, Jen Lee and Steve Cash, leaving him toiling on the development team for eight years. He watched as his NEP teammates — including Eustace, Zych, and Noah Grove —vall got called up, but one night, while sitting down to dinner with colleagues from his sales job at a New York commercial real estate software startup, he got a call from Dan Brennen, USA Hockey’s director of sled national teams. Cash was retiring, and LaMarre was getting his spot.
“It was a little unexpected,” he said. “I went back in and my co-workers were like, ‘I don’t know if I’ve seen you so excited and happy.’ ”
The first of the Massachusetts trio to get his national-team call-up was Zych, a 25-year-old native of South Hadley who has spina bifida, a birth condition affecting the spine. Zych, who was able to walk until he graduated from South Hadley High in 2015, has endured 19 surgeries. In the eighth grade, he tried sled hockey for the first time.
“I had never even been a big hockey fan,” he said. “Then I got out there and it was so fast and the cold air just hits you in the face and gets all in your nose. I instantly knew I was hooked.”
Zych made his national-team debut in 2018 at the Para Hockey Cup, recording 4 points (3 goals, 1 assist) in four games. But after helping Team USA win gold at the 2019 World Championships, he was demoted to the development team.
“I didn’t take it as seriously as I could have,” he said. “I enjoyed the perks of being on the [national] team. I got cut and I didn’t want anything to do with hockey for a week.”
But soon he was back on the ice with a new training regimen.
“I didn’t realize how much I wanted to pursue it until it was taken away,” he said.
Zych and Eustace led Team USA to another gold at the 2021 World Championships in the Czech Republic, courtesy of a 5-1 win over Canada that featured a goal from Eustace.
Along with LaMarre, they are three of six first-time sled hockey Paralympians on Team USA. Just four years ago they were sitting in Colorado Springs during a development-team training camp watching the US edge Canada, 2-1, in overtime to capture gold in PyeongChang.
“It’s been such a thrilling ride to see them go from young athletes getting started to the peak of their sport. It’s truly a dream come true for them,” said Santos, who will be watching a potential gold medal game March 12 from Chicago with the Northeast Passage team as it competes in the Midwest Sled Hockey League Tournament.
“This is a dream for me,” Eustace said. “I’ve never been more excited than I am right now. This is all I’ve ever wanted to do.”