Ralph DeQuebec joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 2002, a macho gung-ho kid out of Los Angeles and former high-school linebacker who had played several sports.
But sled hockey?
“Never played any hockey,” DeQuebec said Saturday.
The last thing he could have imagined was being at the Raleigh IcePlex, all these years later, not only a sled hockey athlete but one who helped the U.S. win a gold medal in the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in South Korea.
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DeQuebec joined U.S. teammates Rico Roman, a forward, and goalie Jen Lee in a practice with members of the Carolina Hurricanes Sled Hockey Team. They also took in the Canes’ game Friday against the Washington Capitals at PNC Arena, getting a chance to meet team owner Tom Dundon, Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour and captain Justin Williams.
DeQuebec, 35, is quick to say a sport he knew so little about saved his life.
“You always have to have the mentality that you never know what’s going to happen the next day,” he said.
What happened to DeQuebec one day in Afghanistan in 2012 was life-altering. A bomb technician, he said he was trying to disarm an improvised explosive device when it suddenly exploded, suffering injuries that resulted in a bilateral above-knee amputation.
DeQuebec, a Purple Heart recipient, now talks about it matter of factly, calling it “just a bad day at the office.” But for a year, he said, he “didn’t care about anything.” He was disabled and dispirited. All he did was eat and play video games until his wife and a few friends, he said, “harassed” him into getting on the ice.
“I was like, ‘I’m from L.A., I don’t play hockey, I don’t even know the rules,’” he said. But his friends won out, got him on a sled, got him playing hockey.
“My first time on the ice it was foreign to me,” he said. “It was all new. I had two sticks, a black thing I had to focus on, sitting on the ice, so much going on.”
The black thing was the puck. Before long he was doing all he could to keep it out of the net as a sled hockey defenseman. Turns out, he was pretty good at it, and some of his old linebacker skills were useful again.
“That’s what draws me to the game, being able to use my body the way it was intended,” he said, smiling. “I’m a big guy. Get in there and get dirty.”
DeQuebec’s strong arms and shoulders allow him to breeze across the ice with alarming speed. Roman can do the same. The young members of the Hurricanes sled team came away impressed.
Isaac Dufour, 13, was one of the young Hurricanes sled hockey members at the IcePlex, practicing and competing against DeQuebec and Roman at times, picking up pointers, taking it all in.
“This was fantastic, to have these guys from the U.S. gold medal team come out,” said Joe Dufour, Isaac’s father. “Awesome guys, all veterans, and great influence on these kids.”
Roman, an assistant captain of the U.S. National Sled Team, and Lee won gold medals in 2018 and in 2014 in Sochi. Both were introduced to the sport by “Operation Comfort,” an organization that assists injured U.S. service personnel at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.
The three players came to Raleigh after the 2018 Para Hockey Cup, an international event organized by Hockey Canada. Team USA won for a fifth straight time, edging Canada 5-4 in the title game in London, Ont.
DeQuebec said there’s nothing quite like seeing the U.S. flag being raised while having a gold medal around your neck. In PyeongChang, the U.S. was a 2-1 winner over Canada in the Para Ice Hockey gold-medal game, tying the score with an extra attacker in the final minute of regulation and then winning in overtime.
“Incredible feeling,” DeQuebec said. “And to be with 17 of my best friends on the ice, all screaming at the top of our lungs, is a feeling I’ll never forget.”