Sledge hockey a growing sport

ERIC BENDER -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:47 AM ET

Strange as it may seem, there's one brand of hockey that wasn't started in Canada.

But not to be outdone by other forms of the sport, sledge hockey is slowly growing in popularity.

"It estimated there are 300 to 400 playing sledge," says Canada's national team captain Todd Nicholson, who brought Team Canada to London last weekend and played three games against the Japanese national squad.

Two were played at the Western Fair Sports Centre and one in Elmira.

London is one Canadian centre with a thriving program. The London Blizzard sledge hockey club was formed eight years ago and now has about 30 players at junior and intermediate levels.

The Blizzard staged its first invitational tournament on the weekend, attracting 26 teams, including four from the United States.

Nicholson said the national team jumped at the chance to showcase itself in front of club teams who may have some future national team talents. The numbers of players have doubled in the last three to four years, he said.

Canada beat Japan 2-1 in Elmira on Saturday afternoon, 6-3 in London on Saturday night and 2-1 on Sunday morning.

Saturday night's game drew more than 800 spectators and helped raise the profile of the sport, says tournament co-organizer Todd Sargeant.

Nicholson said the weekend served as a training camp for the national team, which is preparing for World Cup play in Colorado in April. Canada, the United States, Japan, Sweden, Norway, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Britain and Finland have world-class teams, eight of which are entered in Colorado.

Norway, which won gold at last year's World Cup, was the country that started sledge hockey as a means of helping the disabled play hockey. The sport spread to other European countries and then to North America. Of course, Canadians couldn't resist.

"This is not just a way to get (the disabled) out of the house to do something," said Nicholson, 37, who works for Canada Customs in Ottawa. He had been playing junior B hockey in Arnprior when a car accident on his way home from the prom when he was 18 left him disabled.

"I was active in sports before and I stuck with it," Nicholson said. "There's now an awareness that the disabled can do almost everything anyone else can do. We can do anything -- maybe do it a little differently and make changes in the rules."

Sledge players strap their legs into a sled with a skate runner underneath and propel themselves across the ice with a pair of sawed-off hockey sticks that have picks on the butt ends.

As in most sports, technology is as important as ability and training.

Nicholson, who has been with the national team since 1991, captaining it for the last six years, said the Canadians were at a disadvantage years ago because they used 45-pound steel sledges, while the Norwegians and other Europeans developed titanium frames that weigh only about 12 pounds.

"The Norwegian technology meant that they could get one push to three of ours."

Sledges can now cost $1,000, but less expensive models can last a house league player a lifetime, Nicholson said.

With sledge hockey recognized as a Paralympic sport and by Hockey Canada, the sport has become less costly.

"All the players are now carded athletes and there is funding," said Nicholson. "We were fighting for it for the last 10 years. It used to cost $8,000 to $10,000 to play. Now it's $2,000 to play and everything else is picked up.

"Every time I put on the red and white jersey, I get a tingling. I can't believe I'm here."

National team coach Jeff Snyder from Elmira coached the OHL Kitchener Rangers from 1998 to 2001.

"These guys are just as competitive as able-bodied players and I get a lot of satisfaction working with them. They are elite athletes," said Snyder, who was "called out of the blue" to be coach in 2002.

"The game is very similar. The differences are that the defencemen can't skate backwards, so all the checking is pursuit, and point shot on the power play is not a factor. It's just too hard to get through, with all the players so low on the ice," he said.

Sledge brought one new penalty term to hockey -- T-boning. It's an offence to ram your opponent in the side with the front of your sledge.

The team was in Germany earlier this season for a tournament and remains undefeated with the three wins on the weekend.

"The Olympics are next year and we're preparing for that," said Snyder. The team carries 17 players and dresses 15 for each game.


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