It is one of those sports you always wanted to try but were convinced you would never have the opportunity to do so. Potentially having something to do with the latter half of its name, Sledge Hockey is one of the most popular Paralympic sports in Canada. From coast to coast it is played by both able-bodied and disabled athletes. Many more Canadians watch on TV every four years, and almost without exception each of them are drawn to a common question: what would that be like to try?
Luckily for me, I received the opportunity of a lifetime courtesy of the Canadian Paralympic Committee and the Canadian Tire Family. As a special event to celebrate the fact that there are now only 30 days until the Paralympic games begin, they gave journalists the opportunity to play sledge hockey with members of the Canadian team at the Mattamy Athletics Centre, formerly Maple Leaf Gardens, in Toronto.
Why? For a press conference that outlined just how crucial businesses like Canadian Tire have been in terms of supporting our Canadian Paralympians. But also, probably so one of us would write an article on how incredibly difficult the sport of Sledge Hockey really is, and I’m happy to oblige. Having been able to skate fairly decently for the majority of my life, it has been a while since I had that “first time on skates” feeling. In fact I have never felt a new sport was this difficult in my life: not curling, not alpine skiing and not even the incredibly difficult sport of rowing.
Within seconds of being strapped into my sled I was already being politely corrected by Canadian captain Greg Westlake on how to hold my sticks. Two seconds later, after taking my first couple of strides, I had forgotten that the bottom half of my sticks were essentially knives as a result of the spikes needed to propel oneself forward. I actually made quite the gash on my leg, but in my embarrassment there was no way I was going to let anyone know.
After that I took my first couple of strides, it didn’t seem all that difficult. I was able to move and turn with relative ease. Stopping quickly was somewhat hard, but I got the relative idea of it quickly enough. Despite a few falls when turning too sharply, which can be easily corrected as getting back up didn’t seem all that difficult, I was starting to gain confidence. This wasn’t all that hard, I thought foolishly, maybe I should even try out for the team.
Then I tried to handle a puck, and all that previous confidence evaporated. All the stick skills I have acquired over around 10 years of ice hockey failed to prepare me for the immense difficulty of this task. Having to control the puck with the same tools you use to move forward seems like an almost impossible feat of upper body coordination. Many times I would find myself completing what I thought was a fairly impressive display of stickhandling only to discover that I was not moving forward.
Then comes shooting, the most difficult task of all. For one, even getting into a position to shoot seemed almost impossible. The second you lose the puck in Sledge Hockey it seems to be gone forever. It slides underneath your sled and becomes completely obscured from view. Meanwhile, if you try to reach back and grab it again you stop moving. If you ever get in a shooting position both raising and aiming soon become the enemy. In fact during all my attempts I was unable to raise the puck a single time.
My highlight of the night came when national team assistant captain Brad Bowden and I played a give and go in which he gave some ridiculously nice passes while I tried to “go” as much as I could. After exchanging the puck a couple of times I slid it neatly into the net. Impressed that I didn’t embarrass myself in front of a man who I had an unbelievable amount of respect for, I promptly slammed right into the post.
While I was going through my charade of just trying not to die every time I put the puck in the net, Westlake, Bowden and teammate Billy Bridges were skating circles around everyone. As was Paul Rosen, a Sledge Hockey legend as the former goaltender for Team Canada who was emceeing the event. But most impressive were the three under-15 members of the Mississauga Cruisers. They demonstrated the incredible talent that Canadian sledge hockey players possess, even at the minor hockey level. They were all at least thirty times better than me.
By the time I finally got off the ice I was immensely sore in three regions of my body. I quietly whipped the small trickle of dried blood of my leg which I had gashed with my stick. Then I realised just how sore my arms were from pulling me around everywhere on the ice surface. In fact it took me a whole day to recover before even writing this piece (maybe my editor will believe this). Finally, I realized that my face was sore from the ear to ear smile that had been present throughout the event. While I failed to truly grasp the sport of Sledge Hockey I succeeded in having the time of my life.
So when Rosen said in the press conference that Canada shouldn’t just think “Wickenheiser and Crosby, [they should] think Westlake, Bowden and Bridges” I tend to agree. Having gained a new respect for Sledge Hockey I am now more excited than ever for the Paralympic games.
People sometimes forget that after the Olympic Games conclude the flame is not extinguished, it is ignited even brighter by Paralympic athletes who have as much or more talent, perseverance and heart than almost any Olympian.
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Main Photo Credit: Canadian Tire Corporation/ CNW Group, used with permission.