Declan Farmer to lead Team USA at world championships

Declan Farmer will be one of the key forwards for the U.S. sled hockey team. Photo Credit: (Photo: Dan Nied, USA Hockey)

When U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame coach Jeff Sauer speaks about forward Declan Farmer, he talks about what a splendid athletic specimen he is with his strong arms, big hands and creative mind for the game.

"Declan isn't afraid to play physical," Sauer said. "He and (linemate) Brody (Roybal) are not afraid of anything or anybody."

What Sauer doesn't bring up is that Farmer, 17, was born as a bilateral amputee, one above the knee, one below the knee.

Farmer's skill will be on display in Buffalo starting Sunday when Team USA competes in the International Paralympics Committee Sledge Hockey World Championship. NBC Sports Network will air the USA's preliminary round game against Italy on Wednesday, plus the semifinal and gold-medal game.

"If you picked an All-world team, (Farmer) would be among the top three forwards," said Sauer, one of college hockey's winningest coaches before he got involved in sled hockey.

In 2014, Farmer, a junior at Berkeley Prep in Tampa, won an ESPY as the best male athlete with a disability.

"Certain guys have got it, some guys need to work at it and some never get it," Sauer said. "Declan has it. …He really thinks the game well."

Sled hockey, as it is known in the U.S., was developed in the 1960s in Sweden to allow athletes with disabilities to play a sport that was close to hockey, a major sport in that country.

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Players sit on a sled with blades on the bottom and use two sticks, 18 to 20 inches long, to stickhandle, shoot and propel the sled. One of Farmer's advantages is his ability to shoot almost as well left-handed as right-handed.

"He scored a goal in Sochi (Russia), below the faceoff dot," Sauer recalled. "He beat the goalie on the short side with his left hand coming off the left wing. That's almost unheard of for a player to do in this sport. He just rifled the puck. "

Naturally right-handed, Farmer works religiously on strengthening and improving his shooting ability

"My goal is to have equally strong arms," Farmer said. "If you (skating) down on a goalie, I don't want him to know which hand I will use."

Another key to Farmer's success is that his parents, Matt and Patti Farmer, a lawyer and a teacher, believed immediately after he was born that their son could have a normal life. He was walking on prosthetics before his first birthday.

Declan was treated at Shriner's Hospital in Tampa and then worked with Dr. Raymond Morrissy in Atlanta.

"They were real can-do about prosthetics," Matt Farmer said. "Prosthetics have come a long way since then. But even back then, they said immediately, 'This is what we are going to do to get him up and walking.''"

Declan first attempted to thrive in able-bodied sports, including soccer.

"The field were small, so he could plant himself close to the goal and he got plenty of goals that way," Matt recalled, laughing. "But once the fields got bigger, he couldn't get away with that."

Matt said his son always had good hand-eye coordination and a love of sports. That passion for sports, developed early, still serves him well.

"He's a good tactician, a strategist," Matt said. "He knows a lot about the game."

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Declan was looking for a way to satisfy his need to be competitive when a sled team from Long Island, N.Y., came to Tampa and put on a clinic. He became intrigued and when the Tampa Bay Lightning funded a club sled team, he threw himself into the sport.

At 15, he made the U.S. national team and led it in scoring (four goals, four assists) when the Americans won the silver medal at the 2013 World Championships.

Farmer says he works out every day. He bench presses 245 pounds and insists he is one of the weaker players on the U.S. team.

Sled hockey is a full-contact sport, meaning physical play is allowed and encouraged. The competitive fire in sled athletes isn't any less intense than is seen in NHL players.

"On my first year on the team, everyone made it clear that we don't like Canada," Declan said. "And after my first games against them, I didn't like them either. But we respect them, and the games are always very fun."

He said finding sled hockey changed his life.

"I'm such a competitive person and sled hockey is the only way for me to feel that," he said. "The sport has been very impactful on my life."

April 26, 2015
Kevin Allen, USA TODAY Sports