The Sidney Crosby of sledge hockey grew up wanting to be a goalie in the NHL until he realized, "Oh yeah, I'm disabled."
Instead, Brad Bowden, 26, became one of the best sledge hockey players in the world --maybe the very best. He can shoot the puck both left- and right-handed, and plays on Canada's top line with Billy Bridges and Greg Westlake. At the 2006 Turin Paralympics, the line scored all three goals as Canada beat Norway 3-0 for the gold. Now, nearly four years later, Canada's top line is still intact.
"I think that's probably the best line in the world, I'll say that," said Jeff Snyder, head coach of Canada's national sledge team. "In the NHL you don't see as many lines sticking together, you see them mixing and matching a bit more now. In the '80s, when the Islanders had won four championships in a row, they had a line of (Bryan) Trottier, (Clark) Gillies and (Mike) Bossy. That lineup reminds me a little bit of them. They've got some good grit, some good goal scorers and are also good defensively."
With new programs popping up all over the country, sledge hockey is one of the fastest-growing branches of hockey. It's for players of all ages, abilities and skill levels, disabled or able-bodied. It's hard-hitting, fast and exciting to watch.
Said Canadian team captain, Jean Labonte: "In sledge hockey, there is one player that can pull the fans out of their seat like Denis Savard used to do, and it's Bowden. One-on-one, he's a defenceman's worst nightmare."
Bowden spent this week looking to create nightmares for the U.S., Norway and Japan at the 2009 World Sledge Hockey Challenge in Charlottetown, P.E.I. It's the last major international competition for the top teams in the world prior to the 2010 Paralympics next March. Round-robin play ends with the gold medal game tomorrow.
Raised in Orton, Ont., by his grandparents, Bowden was born with sacral agenesis, a rare spinal abnormality affecting the sacrum, or tailbone, similar to spina bifida. Wanting to reduce the time Bowden spent playing video games, his grandmother brought him to play wheelchair basketball in Kitchener, Ont., an introduction that then led to sledge hockey and longtime teammate Bridges. Since their teens, the two have pushed each other to a level few players ever reach.
Like Crosby, Bowden is regarded as a player who puts the team's goals first.
"I think he's a leader by example more than necessarily a vocal leader," said Snyder. "He's really worked on making his left-handed shot better. It's a difficult skill, as you can imagine. It makes them tougher to check."
A dual-sport athlete until last year, Bowden was a member of the national wheelchair basketball team that won gold at the 2004 Athens Paralympics. He now describes getting cut from that squad five months before the 2008 Beijing Paralympics as "a blessing in disguise," allowing him to focus solely on sledge hockey.
"It's kind of hard when you're being tugged between two teams," said Bowden. "I've always felt like I've been torn between the two. That's a load off my shoulders."
Even though the Canadian sledge hockey team seems to win almost everything, there's no room for error: at the most recent Worlds earlier this year they got bronze.
"It's weird when you win from 2006 to 2009 and then you get to the world championships and things don't really go your way," Bowden reflected. "We didn't play our greatest and we paid for it. We need to learn from that."