Billy Hanning first heard of Steve Cash on local TV. Now they are teammates going for a Paralympic gold medal.
Billy Hanning first heard of Steve Cash during a local television feature about sled hockey.
The St. Louis area native doesn’t remember exactly when the feature aired, whether it was 2003 or perhaps 2004.
It could have been before he lost his right leg to bone cancer at the age of 18 or it could have been after.
He just remembers he thought it was interesting and that Cash had blond hair.
Today, the two Disabled Athlete Sports Association St. Louis Blues teammates are on the U.S. national sled hockey team, and on Sunday they'll face Canada in the gold medal game in PyeongChang, South Korea. It’s Hanning’s first Paralympics and Cash’s fourth appearance at the Games.
The now 28-year-old Cash, who lost his right leg to bone cancer when he was three years old, spent his childhood playing inline ice hockey as a goalie. Cash’s dad, Don, said they tried to get him into golf and other sports, but he wanted to play hockey like his three brothers and so he did. His brothers helped him move forward and adapt, never feeling sorry for him.
Cash was at a local hockey tournament when a coach who happened to be looking for sled hockey goalies had heard about him and showed up to promote the sport.
“To me it was a foreign language, but I heard the word hockey and my eyes kind of lit up as I’d always been in love with the sport. To me it was a natural fit, so I was willing to give it a shot.”
The coach went to Cash’s house and put a video of the 2002 Paralympic team winning gold in a shootout in Salt Lake City into the family’s VCR.
Cash tried the sport out the following weekend.
After initially being apprehensive, thinking maybe it wasn’t for him after all, his first time on the sled was an eye opener: He took two strides, fell over and dinged his elbow pretty badly. But he kept coming back for more.
“It was always about a challenge and growing up that’s what I was used to. That was kind of the norm for me, getting outside my comfort zone. So getting in a sled was the perfect challenge for me.”
He started playing with the Blues in 2004 and has been hooked since.
The now 32-year-old Hanning used to skateboard, and doctors originally thought the injury in his right leg was related to that. But after a couple doses of cortisone he found out it was bone cancer.
After learning his diagnosis and options, Hanning took it well, driving home with his left foot that same day. He said it was later, when he was trying to do what used to be his normal, that it got difficult to cope.
Doctors eventually told him he needed to get more cardio. He wasn’t out of shape, but one of the side effects was high blood pressure and high cholesterol. He remembered that broadcast that featured Cash, and soon, by 2008, he was skating with the Blues and finding his new normal.
“Growing up playing able-bodied sports and then losing my leg and still trying to play able-bodied sports, I was having a real tough time with it. Just to find a sport where everyone is on the same playing field, you kind of feel normal again, if you will.”
Years after that broadcast appearance, Cash and Hanning met for the first time around 2010 as Blues teammates. Cash had been spending his time focusing on the national team, then returned from the 2010 Paralympic Games. He dominated the sport in Vancouver: He was named the tournament MVP for stopping all 33 shots over five games.
The two have become good friends as they now compete on the national team for the first time together, bringing their camaraderie to the national squad.
“Even though there’s 17 guys on this team, when we’re hanging out sometimes, it only feels like there’s me and Billy because we have a lot of inside jokes with each other.” Cash said. “There may be moments where we make other people uncomfortable.”
They dance to “Still Fly” in the locker room and use their time to poke fun at each other as much as possible. They both use humor to their advantage.
Their families said that as they’ve played on the team, they’ve also opened up more.
“I think it’s made him a more confident person,” Hanning’s wife Lauren said. “I think it’s given him the ability to express himself better — to make him feel like he’s a part of something that he fits well into.”
For both, those changes were things as seemingly minuscule as wearing shorts instead of pants more often. Or it meant getting into pools and lakes more.
Cash has dominated the sled hockey world to become the best goalie in the sport, earning two gold medals and one bronze from the Paralympics. He’s even earned an ESPY.
Hanning is finding his place at his first Games after almost not making the team. He had a point a few years ago where he wanted to quit the sport. But Lauren convinced him otherwise.
“I just wanted him to be able to look back when he was 70 years old and say, ‘I gave it my all and I tried,’” Lauren said. “‘Even if I didn’t make it to the Olympics, I tried as hard as I could.’”
Hanning is still in awe of making the team after initially choosing to not even compete. But after he started getting better, multiple people began to tell him he should try out for the national team. And Hanning began to see it too.
“You finally start thinking maybe I got something here,” he said.
And if the team wins on Sunday, he'll have something else—a gold medal.