Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Canadian National Men's and Sledge Teams Share More Than Saddledome Ice

Hopefuls for the Canadian National Men’s Hockey Team, including Martin Brodeur and Jordan Staal, watched with intensity and admiration as 18 men in custom-built sleds propelled themselves at lightening speed across the ice, firing 100-mile-an-hour slap shots at the net. For the Canadian National Sledge Hockey Team, it was business as usual, except for the luxury of practicing on Pengrowth Saddledome ice.

Along with the Canadian National Women’s Team, the sledge players had the opportunity to share the building with the men’s team orientation camp and the 200 or so media that were there to cover it.
Jean Labonte, who is 40, was named the sledge team captain for the third year.

“Just the fact of being here with the women’s team and the men, it’s an amazing week,” exclaimed Labonté, “and we’re learning a lot. At the same time, our sport gets a lot more media attention. In the long run, we want to build the sport and for that, we need more coverage and visibility.”

While sledge hockey was introduced to Canada in 1982 and debuted at the Paralympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway in 1994, Hockey Canada brought it under its umbrella in 2004. Canada is also the defending Paralympic champion – having won gold in Torino, Italy in 2006.

Labonté says the difference has been night and day for the sport. “The level of professionalism around the team has increased a lot. It motivates me to be more ready, to be more fit, to work a lot more. Being with Hockey Canada has brought us that same winning attitude, not overconfidence. Coming to the rink, as simple as well-dressed, ready for a game, game face on – we’re coming here to win.”

While sledge hockey is growing, currently three teams seem to split the top three finishes: Canada, United States, and Norway. The national team isn’t centralized, so players gather from across the country to meet as a team about once a month.

Canada has won every tournament since 2006, except in last year’s Worlds, where it finished third. If there is danger of becoming complacent from the team’s continued success, Labonté said the bronze-place finish was a good wake-up call.

“It sends a message to us that you can’t just expect to win. We have great talent on our team, but we need to put in the work ethic, and we need to be ready for every game, every minute, every shift. Without that, other teams can beat us.”

Of course, it didn’t hurt that the men’s team coach Mike Babcock came into the sledge team dressing room to talk to the players before their practice with a powerful message about how easy it could be to become unworried when a team always wins.

Having access to the best Canadian National Hockey League players just across the hall, Labonté admits it has been a great experience. “It’s two different games, but it’s the same passion. It’s the same will to win. I guess maybe both teams are in awe. We’re in awe because these are the players we watch all year long. They’re close to us now and we can watch their practices. For them, they’re new to our sport. They’re discovering it.”

In 2010 in Vancouver, for the first time in Paralympic history, sledge hockey will be televised throughout the Paralympic Winter Games on CTV, TSN or Rogers Sportsnet.

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