Third time's a charm

ALISON KORN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:04 AM ET

Don't take off your Team Canada jersey just yet -- there's one more Canadian hockey team aiming to win gold in Vancouver.

Two out of three: Done. With the Canadian woman and men both netting Olympic gold in hockey, it's now time for the Canadian sledge hockey guys to strike.

The team has been riding the bus together all week, tracing a route from Calgary through several small towns in British Columbia before arriving in Vancouver on Saturday for the Paralympics.

Kimberley, Trail, Kelowna: The small-town welcoming, the movies on the bus. Their first flick? Slapshot. Of course. They all watched the men's gold medal game together, too.

"We're having a pretty great time, it's a great lifestyle," said assistant captain Greg Westlake, of Mississauga. "We left on the 26th of February and have been on the road since. It's a really nice way to get to see more of the country and do some community events."

This is a huge moment for sledge hockey, with a home Paralympic Games set to begin March 12 and with more exposure expected than ever before.

With CTV pledging to air the gold medal game live on March 20, the team dreams of winning with millions watching, just as the men's and women's Olympic teams did.

"It's pretty special knowing that the men's team and the women's team took care of business," Westlake said. "It's a lofty goal, so now just being put in that position is a great opportunity for us and we're looking forward to completing it."

Since coming fully under the Hockey Canada umbrella in 2003, Canada's national sledge team has been an international power, winning Paralympic gold in 2006, a world championship gold in 2008 and two World Sledge Hockey Challenges in 2007 and 2008.

But the U.S. won their last match, the 2009 World Sledge Hockey Challenge, in November in Charlottetown, in overtime.

It's not a worry for the team.

"I think we've improved a lot since then," Westlake said.

"I think we can take some lessons out of watching how Team Canada did. We want to have that same resilience. We're going to have to win three or four really tough games to get a shot at the gold medal. It's not an easy task by any means."

In case you don't know, sledge hockey is the Paralympic version of ice hockey and, since its debut on the Paralympic program at the 1994 Lillehammer Paralympics, is becoming one of the biggest attractions for spectators at the Games.

It is fast-paced, highly rough and physical and played by athletes with a physical disability in the lower part of the body.

Like hockey, each team has six players on the ice, including the goalie. Athletes sit strapped into a metal frame that rests on two blades. The sledge is raised high enough to allow the puck to pass underneath.

Athletes use two mini hockey sticks with spikes on one end and blades on the other.

The spikes are used to propel the sledge across the ice, and the blades are used to handle the puck -- so the best athletes can shoot equally hard and accurate off either stick.

Perhaps after these Paralympics, more people will know all of that.

"So many guys in the sport are sick of answering the question, 'What is sledge hockey, what is that sport?'" Westlake said.

"We'll be put on that stage and get a chance to showcase ourselves as athletes and showcase our sport, and not have to answer that question as often."

Equipment available

Hockey Canada has introduced a sledge hockey equipment program, a grassroots initiative designed to help alleviate the financial challenge of buying sledge hockey equipment.

It will assist organizations at the local and provincial levels that wish to make an initial investment in sledge hockey sleds and sticks. The deadline to apply is March 21, 2010.

For information, visit hockeycanada.ca/sledgehockey.


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