GANGNEUNG, South Korea — A goaltending coach for nearly 20 years, Jason Wolfe has tutored neophytes and European professionals, college stars and minor leaguers, netminders as young as 4 and as old as 74. But until last fall he had yet to encounter a pupil like Steve Cash, nor had he been charged with a mission quite so weighty: how to make the best sled hockey goalie in the world even better.
“It’s a little bit of a tricky position,” Wolfe said. “I’m there to try to coach and help, and you’re talking about a guy who’s done things no one else has. I’ve never worked with a goalie who’s pitched four or five straight shutouts at a world-class level.”
In leading the United States to gold at the last two Paralympics, Cash held opponents scoreless for a record 313 minutes 17 seconds. No one, in the Olympics or Paralympics, had recorded five consecutive shutouts until Cash sparkled in Vancouver in 2010, saving all 33 shots he faced in the tournament. Four years later in Sochi, after the Russians scored twice against him in pool play, the only goals he has allowed at the Paralympics, Cash exacted revenge by shutting them out in the gold medal game.
Those performances across the last decade offered convincing evidence that Cash, 28, did not need a dedicated coach to dominate the sport. He had not received such individualized instruction, he said, since 2006, when at age 16 he served as the U.S. team’s backup at the Turin Paralympics.
But about a year ago, when team officials asked players where they thought the program could improve, Cash and reserve Jen Lee said they could benefit from an expert’s perspective. Cash remembered how valuable his previous goalie coach, Marty Wakeland, had been and hoped his next one would register a similar effect.
To prepare for Cash, Wolfe viewed every clip that he could find. He analyzed not only the few goals that Cash had permitted, but also shots that hit the post or rebounds he did not control. He also watched every interview with Cash that was available on YouTube — anything that would add insight into Cash’s personality, how he plays and learns.
“I don’t know that I would say I felt pressure to prove myself,” said Wolfe, who did not accompany the team here to the Paralympics, which began Friday. “I would say I felt pressure to gain his trust. I’m not here to mess up the success he’s had. I’m just here to work together to figure out how to get that maximum result.”
Wolfe noticed how Cash’s style had evolved since 2010, his first Paralympics as starter; he moved more efficiently and quieted his catching motion. At 5 feet 7 inches tall, Cash is somewhat of an anomaly. The position is trending bigger, with the Czech Republic’s Michal Vapenka, at 6 feet 4, the most physically imposing at these Paralympics.
Cash offsets the size disadvantage with agility, speed, and an economy of movement and equipment. Unlike many other single-amputees — Cash lost his right leg to bone cancer at age 3 — he protects himself with discreet shin pads, not the bulky versions that allow a sprawled goalie to eliminate the lower part of the ice.
“The more I put on, the slower I feel,” Cash said. “I wear a youth-XL chest protector that was probably built in the late ’90s, and it’s what I’ve stuck with because it allows me to move better.”
Able-bodied goalies, Wolfe said, are taught to skate with their hands in a semistationary position as they track the puck. In sled hockey, officially known as para ice hockey, goalies still transfer weight from one side to the other as they move across the crease, but they also must use their arms for propulsion. One holds a stick with a spiked end for pushing. As he repositions, Cash must be mindful to keep the glove in his left hand up at the same time.
What distinguishes Cash from his peers, besides an intuitive understanding of the sport’s nuances, is his body control, his ability to shift in a way that does not leave him vulnerable to quick shots.
Still, Cash and Wolfe experimented with different techniques, adjusting Cash’s balance and body weight and the way he would lower his hands to the ice.
They discussed other nuances, such as setting the puck for defensemen or pushing it up ice to generate offense, as well as mental exercises that Cash has adopted as part of his preparation. Without much ice time together — only two camps, in October outside Charlotte, North Carolina, and in November in Madison, Wisconsin — they have communicated often via text and email, and will continue to do so over these Paralympics. The Americans’ first game is Sunday against Japan.
“He’s been kind of the voice in my head,” Cash said. “If I find myself being too timid in net, that tells me I need to come out a little more. I can picture him telling me what to do to get ready and how to prepare.”