Pioneers Of The Game
As I celebrate my 32nd birthday this month, I can’t help but feel like I have lived through quite a lot of amazing things. The stories I will tell aren’t as impressive as the ones my grandparents used to tell me about when the first man landed on the moon, or the major World Wars, but at least I can tell stories to my future children about what life was like before Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Another thing I might mention to them is how I was involved in the evolution of sledge hockey with some of my closest friends, we were/are pioneers of our sport.
I remember when I first got into sledge hockey with the National Team, it used to be almost the exact same as any other local club team. We would have to pay thousands of dollars to participate, rely heavily on parents and friends to drive us to almost every camp or tournament. As much as I loved those long 12 hours road trips to places like the Lake Placid’s USA Training Centre where we used to have camps and exhibition games against the USA. I can’t help, but feel relieved that now I can simply hop on a plane, close my eyes and wake up at my destination. I do miss the road trips, they are great memories, but I am glad those days are over, plus not having to cover expenses out of my pocket is pretty decent.
I also remember the lack of competition on the international stge. We used to always blow through every single team, just to meet Norway in the final of any tournament. Back then the USA were not the strong powerhouse that they are now. It always used to be Sweden, Japan, USA, Norway, Germany and Canada. We used to always end up on top for quite a while. Now with the birth of the Russian program and other countries developing their programs it’s made for quite a roll of the dice for who’s going to put up the biggest fight to make it to the big game.
Here we are in 2015. We placed second at the World Championships. Although I am not content with our placement, I can’t help but feel good about the fact that it was so hard to only get to the final, the sport is a challenge. Any elite athlete loves a challenge and to work for the things that aren’t easily achieved. I am one of them. I do not look at the sport as something I am losing my grasp on nor am I going to throw in the towel, but my experience until this point has created a new spark in doing my part. I am going to help push the sport to the next level, push the sport even further down the road until I can’t do much more as an active athlete. I think it’s a transition that happens to players when you get older, and start thinking “What next?”
It’s a good time to be a sledge hockey player right now, the top 3 teams in the world are the USA, Canada and Russia (which sounds pretty legit when explaining the sport to people now) and it could easily change within the next few years, depending on what happens with our program as well as how well the other programs progress. We now have a well-run development team full of players from all across Canada working hard to take all of our spots on the National Team, which is healthy, it keeps you motivated to make sure that you don’t fall behind.
As far as the development goes in my own province (Ontario), it seems to be going pretty well. We have teams popping up across Ontario, which makes for interesting zoning arguments, but this is actually a good problem to have, it means the sport is growing and people want to start teams. Everyone wants to hop on the sledge hockey bandwagon, especially since the PanAm Games have come to us, disabled sport is the name of the game right now, so it makes sense that people want to strike while the iron is hot. The only problem with teams popping up is this: there is a limited pool of athletes to fill the rosters with, so if you are randomly starting a team in an area, firstly you might want to make sure you aren’t stealing from another club’s program and secondly ou can actually make sure that you have everything you need, it takes more than just wanting a program in your area, it takes funding, support from the community and a lot of planning. I wish anyone willing to do what it takes to get a program off the ground the best of luck. Everyone deserves to play, and Ontario needs to develop more sledge hockey athletes.
A League Of Our Own
This past season marked the first time ever we had an “Elite League”, it is a league developed by a few masterminds in Ontario, working with the Ontario Sledge Hockey Association to give elite players and other aspiring National Team “contenders” a chance to play at one of the highest levels. Heck, I would say in all of Canada. The USA Sledge hockey program has many leagues down below us, developing new players every year, so this is a huge step for our Canadian program. We only have four teams right now (Mississauga, Elmvale, Ottawa and Buffalo). Buffalo keeps the league pretty competitive, so who is to say more teams from the USA might not want to join us here in Canada to play in our league, it’s all good for the growth of sledge hockey in the end.
I know there was a lot of talk about why we created a National Team for sledge hockey. My answer to this question is simple: competition = improvement. If we don’t start providing Canadian players with an environment where they are constantly challenged by better players they will never improve fast enough to ensure the survival of our Canadian Team. We don’t have time to sit back and wait four years to see new high-caliber players come up to make the team, they need to learn the game at home with their clubs in the league and grow before they come to a try-out camp.
I am very excited to see how the sport will grow within the next two years with the Elite League as well as having a few big hockey equipment developers starting to get the sledge hockey bug. We are going to see some significant changes within the sport, which means that you may end up seeing more and more sledge hockey players around your local rinks. I urge you to help in any way to support your local clubs. This is Canada’s game and it needs our help. I’m trying to do my part, let’s all take a hand in something bigger than ourselves and have an amazing story to tell in the end.
Brad Bowden #27
Forward, Canada’s National Sledge Hockey Team