VANCOUVER — The pressure is on Canada’s sledge hockey team to follow the men’s and women’s Olympic teams and complete the Vancouver 2010 golden hat-trick.
The puck drops Saturday at noon CT between the host nation and Italy in the first event of the nine-day 2010 Winter Paralympics.
Canada, the defending Paralympic champion, is ranked number three after finishing behind world champion United States and silver medallist Norway last May in the Czech Republic.
Being on the low-end of the podium after a heartbreaking semifinal shootout loss to the U.S. taught coach Jeff Snyder’s team a necessary lesson.
“That is a very hard thing to do, allow one (regulation) goal over five games and win a bronze medal. But we did it,” said Snyder of Elmira, Ont. “It was probably a good thing for us. We won a lot of tournaments over the years and it was probably good to make us take a look at ourselves.”
Captain Jean Labonte of Gatineau, Que., carried the flag to lead Team Canada into the Friday night opening ceremony at B.C. Place Stadium and will lead his squad through the tournament at Thunderbird Arena on the University of British Columbia campus. The $48 million, 6,800-seat arena hosted last winter’s Hockey Canada Cup where 5-0 Canada edged the U.S. 2-1 in a shootout to win the final.
Canada plays Sweden on Sunday night and meets Norway Tuesday in a rematch of the Turin 2006 final. Czech Republic, South Korea, Japan and the U.S. are also competing at Vancouver.
All of Canada’s preliminary matches, the semifinals and gold medal final will be broadcast live, underlining the sport’s evolution.
“In 1991 we paid our own way to the world championship, paid for ice time, paid for everything. We were doing bingos back then,” said Ottawa forward Herve Lord, a four-time Paralympian. “Now we are seen as hockey players and not sledge players.”
Elsewhere on Saturday, the six-day wheelchair curling tournament opens at the Vancouver Paralympic Centre. Men’s and women’s downhill for standing, sitting and visually impaired skiers is at Whistler Creekside. The Whistler Paralympic Park in the Callaghan Valley is site of men’s and women’s sitting 2.4-km pursuit biathlon and 3-km pursuit biathlon for men’s and women’s standing and visually impaired athletes.