TAMPA — Those who saw him scoot around the rink that afternoon back in 2006 say Declan Farmer was a natural the moment he took the ice.
"I thought, Gretzky," said Ron Richardson, who was with Farmer during a sled hockey exhibition in Clearwater.
As in Wayne Gretzky, "The Great One," of standup hockey.
Richardson, a single amputee who had slightly more experience in sled hockey than Farmer at the time, was impressed by the new kid's raw skills.
It was Farmer's first try at the sport, having asked his parents if he could attend the exhibition.
Born a bilateral amputee (above the left leg, below the right leg), Farmer, 8 at the time, had tried tee-ball and soccer with his prosthetics. He had fun but just could not keep up with the other players.
Sled hockey was another world. It is all arms and core.
With short hockey sticks in both hands to power around the ice and control and shoot the puck, Farmer quickly realized he could not only compete with the other players, he could excel.
"You could tell right away he had hockey sense," Richardson said.
A dozen years later, Farmer, 20, is a staple on the USA national team. The Tampa native will compete this month at the Paralympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Team USA is aiming for its third straight gold medal.
This is the second Paralympics for Farmer. He won gold in 2014 at the Sochi Games.
"It's an amazing opportunity," Farmer said. "Not many people get the chance to do it, you want to make your family proud, your teammates proud, everybody who is the supporting cast behind you."
Love at first ice
Farmer, now a sophomore at Princeton University, was 14 when he joined the national team.
"We tried to bring him along slow, but he really excelled," Team USA coach Gus Gosselin said.
Farmer's teammates and opponents were much older, as much as 20 years older. Some were military vets who lost one or both legs while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. Farmer was still in high school, attending Berkeley Prep.
When playing locally, Richardson, 62, would slam into Farmer to mimic the contact he would encounter in tournaments. Problem was, Richardson said he had trouble catching up to Farmer.
"The way he moves the puck and moves himself, it's all in one motion," Gosselin said. "He doesn't have to think about it."
"Like watching the Tasmanian devil," Richardson said.
Farmer can pass and shoot with both hands. And he can score. His 69 goals and 130 points are the most in Team USA history. He had three goals and eight points in the Sochi games.
"He's got a wicked shot," said Kristen Bowness, who heads the Tampa Bay Lightning's community hockey program.
Since sled hockey players have only one hand on the stick, every shot is a wrist shot. Farmer, though, is strong enough to blister the puck to the top corner of the net from the blue line.
"I put in a lot of work," Farmer said. "I try to be the best player I can be."
He is driven by a competitive nature. He wants to win at everything from board games with father Matt, mom Patti and younger brother Ronan, to fantasy football, which he finally won last fall.
And he is getting better at ping-pong, which he and his teammates often play.
That is why he is so grateful to have discovered sled hockey.
"It was really hard for me to play with kids with two functioning legs," he said about soccer. "That's why sled hockey has meant so much to me. It's given me a way to be competitive.
"I loved it the first time I got on the ice. It was really the first time I could be competitive. It was really fun. I had a good time being able to be fast."
Some followers of the sport think Farmer is the best sled hockey player in the world. Everyone on the team has a role, he said. His is to create offense.
"That specific skill gets a lot of attention," he said. "Pretty much our entire team is made up of probably one of the best players in the world."
It is said the puck follows the great one in hockey, like Gretzky, Sidney Crosby and Nikita Kucherov.
The puck follows Farmer, and he is a force on the ice. And he was a force while playing against older players who are physically more mature.
"Now he's growing up and he's physically developing," Gosselin said. "I really feel we haven't seen his best yet. I don't know if that makes sense.
He's one of the top players in the world if not the best player. He's still hungry and he has some things he wants to achieve."
Right now, that is another Paralympic gold medal for Team USA. After that, it will be a degree in economics from Princeton and more world sled hockey championships and more Paralympic gold medals.
Farmer will play a major role at each stop.
"That's hard a thing to say, the best in the world," Richardson said. "But there's no one better than Declan."
Contact Roger Mooney at email@example.com. Follow @rogermooney50.