Valtellina Valchiavenna, Italy is seven and a half hours north of Rome and just south of Switzerland. The northern province is surrounded by peaks and valleys from the neighboring Alps.
It’s also where the 19th Winter Deaflympics were held Dec. 12-21. Schlereth, a 2019 Northwest graduate from Fenton, competed for the U.S. ice hockey team in the town of Chiavenna. The Americans beat Canada 7-3 on Dec. 21 to capture the gold medal. Schlereth assisted on Team USA’s final goal of the game and finished with two goals and three assists in the five games the U.S. played in.
The competition was organized in 1924 by the International Committee of Sports for the Deaf and is sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee. Teams from Canada, Finland, Kazakhstan and Russia also competed. The hockey gold medal was one of three the U.S. claimed in Italy. The U.S. won six medals in all. Russia dominated the Deaflympics with 17 gold medals and 49 medals overall.
Before the gold-medal game, the U.S. hockey team in pool play beat Finland 6-2, Kazakhstan 14-0 and Russia 7-3. The Americans lost to Canada 4-1 in the final day of pool play. In the gold-medal game, Canada led the U.S. 1-0 after one period, but allowed the next seven goals. Schlereth earned the second assist on Max Finley’s goal with about 11 minutes left in the game.
Garrett Gintoli led the U.S. with nine goals and five assists for 14 points. His brother, Peter, had four goals and three assists. The Gintolis are from Connecticut.
“I skated into the zone and pulled the puck wide and passed to (teammate Sam Holzrichter) who took a shot and Max tipped it in,” Schlereth said of his scoring play. “We already had the lead, and at that time we almost knew we had it. Canada was falling apart.”
Schlereth’s first of two goals gave the U.S. team a 2-1 lead against Finland. He looked up into the stands to see his family cheering.
“That was the best,” he said.
Schlereth’s second goal was against Kazakhstan and was a pile-on tally in the rout.
“We were up by a lot, but to score was amazing,” Schlereth said.
This was Schlereth’s first international tournament. He was the captain for two years of the Northwest team that plays in the Mid States Club Hockey Association. He also has played for several other club teams in the St. Louis area and was the recipient of the St. Louis Blues Plager Youth Scholarship in 2016. The scholarship is awarded annually to a player who exemplifies commitment, leadership, loyalty, respect and toughness.
The Deaflympics team competes under the guidelines of USA Hockey and the USA Deaf Sports Federation. Hearing aids or implants are not allowed to be worn during competition.
Schlereth tried out three years ago for the U.S. Deaflympics team, but was cut. Professional players are allowed, and Schlereth said he competed against American and Canadian Juniors.
“But I learned what I had to do to make the team,” said the newly-minted gold medalist. “I made it my goal and achieved that. I got to compete at an Olympic level and took home the gold. It changed my life that I know dreams can come true if you make it happen and put in the work.”
In the rematch against Canada, Schlereth said Team USA turned the tables by setting the tone early.
“The coaches told us in the locker room we are getting a medal and it’s up to us to decide what color it is,” Schlereth said about the gold-medal game.
Not only were Schlereth’s dreams coming true, but he was awestruck by the beauty of the region.
“You could see the Italian Alps from the ice,” Schlereth said about the outdoor rink. “It was decorated with Deaflympics signs and all the teams’ flags.
“The town of Chiavenna is so beautiful and I wish we could go back. The small-town streets and walking everywhere. There were restaurants everywhere and everyone was so nice. Seeing Pompeii and all of that history was amazing.”
What about the food, Jake? He said it’s better in Chiavenna than in Rome.
“They have a gnocchi with cheese that tastes like macaroni and cheese, which we couldn’t get enough of. They also have the best pizza,” he said.
Once Schlereth got home he immediately left to resume the season with the Chicago Cougars, a Tier III junior team which competes in the United States Premier Hockey League. He hopes to attend college in the fall and is also a hockey referee.
A growing number of Mid States alumni are experiencing success after they leave the league. The most notable of course is St. Louis Blues Stanley Cup champion hero Pat Maroon, who played for Oakville and now plays for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Now the league has produced an Olympic champion.
“Playing for Northwest in Mid States, I learned that no matter how the game goes you have to keep pushing forward,” Schlereth said. “You only win games if you work together as a team. My coaches pushed me hard knowing my goals, and I’m grateful.”