Updated: Tuesday, 11 March 2014 19:34 | By Agence France-Presse

Tensions high as Russia takes on USA in Sochi sledge hockey

With tensions running high over Crimea, a fledgling Russian team on Tuesday go head to head with defending champions the United States in a sledge hockey clash at the Sochi Paralympics. 


Tensions high as Russia takes on USA in Sochi sledge hockey

US Paralympic sledge hockey team athletes gather together for a final cheer at the end of practice at the Sertich Ice Arena in Colorado Springs, Colorado on February 27, 2014 - by Jason Connolly

With the Games taking place in the shadow of Russia's intervention in Ukraine's Crimea peninsula just across the Black Sea, several members of both teams are military veterans.

The United States include two marines Paul Schaus and Josh Sweeney, who became amputees after injuries received in Afghanistan.

There are five military athletes on the Russian team, including Vadim Selyukin, who lost both legs in the war in Chechnya and went on to become one of the biggest sledge hockey advocates in Russia. 

Before Russia and the US go head to head Tuesday, national team coach Sergei Samoilov is as skittish as a mother hen with his squad. 

The Sochi stadiums full of roaring fans are a bit too much to take for some of the younger players on the team, which is a mix of war veterans and boys as young as 17.

"One question and they are already demoralized," Samoilov yells, shooing cameras waiting for athletes by the practice arena. 

"You'll still have your job, what am I going to do?"

Samoilov is only half-joking. 

Hockey has always been more than just a sport in Russia.

The stinging loss of the star-studded national ice hockey team to the United States at the Olympics last month led to a non-stop stream of conspiracy theories. The coach was sacked.

Samoilov, who has painstakingly created the sledge-hockey team over four years of trial and error, fumed when asked whether Tuesday's game is seen as a rematch. 

The two sports have nothing to do with one another, he said. 

But Anatoly Yegorov, the president of sledge hockey association, said the pressure from the media and fans is partly the desire for the Russian victory to balance out the loss to the Americans in February. 

"Of course, it's symbolic," he said. 

Sledge hockey, also called sled hockey in the United States, was invented in a Sweden rehabilitation centre in the 1960s and has long become a fan favourite in several Western countries.

The sport is at least as physical and high-impact as regular ice hockey, with players poised on a single metal frame set on two blades. They then use two specially adapted hockey sticks - one to pass and shoot the puck and the other to move around the ice.

In Russia however, it remained obscure, with Samoilov taking two years of promoting and travelling to find enough players, let alone sponsors. 

When the US team won gold in Vancouver, most of the members of the Russian team in Sochi had not even tried the sport yet.

Then they came to their first ever Paralympics ranked third and already qualified for the semi-finals. 

To gather enough players for the national team, Samoilov posted an announcement on the Russian Paralympic Committee's webpage, inviting applicants with no prior experience. 

He also travelled around Russia's regions speaking at events for people with disabilities and making video presentations. 

"There wasn't a great response," he said. "Guys were very, very suspicious of this sport." 

At one point, Samoilov reached out to the US for help, he said. 

"Americans came and we had a master class," he said. 

"I never even knew the details of tuning the sleds or the tips of the hockey sticks. But as they say, don't feed us fish, instead teach us how to fish." 

And as he prepares his squad, Samilov said that Russia could stand to do more for men who became disabled by serving their country.

"The country must be grateful that they went to the end," he added. 

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