From winning Canada’s first sledge hockey Paralympic gold medal in Turin, Italy eight years ago to sharing countless laughs with teammates, four retiring players may no longer wear the maple leaf on their chests but will always carry with them both big and small memories of being members of the National Sledge Hockey Team.
Goaltender Paul Rosen and defenceman Jean Labonté, along with forwards Hervé Lord and Todd Nicholson, announced their retirement this week, marking a bittersweet moment in the careers of sledge hockey pioneers who have helped pave the way for future generations of physically disabled elite athletes.
Rosen, who joined the national team as its oldest rookie at age 41, said one of his greatest memories of the game is “watching our guys skate around and leave the disability off the ice.”
“So many people look at us as disabled people,” the Thornhill, Ont. said. “We’re not disabled. We are so able-bodied, it’s not funny.”
In fact, Rosen himself has participated in three and Labonté has played in four Paralympics. Both Nicholson and Lord have played all five times since sledge hockey was introduced to the Paralympic Games back in 1994, when they won bronze, and including 1998, when they won silver. That’s certainly more than most athletes can claim.
Rosen said the positive atmosphere at the most recent 2010 Paralympic Games in Vancouver, B.C. not only displayed just how widely accepted the sport has become, but also increased its profile and popularity within Canada and abroad.
“The reception that we got, the crowd, the way they fell in love with our team …” he recalled. “It’s something I will never, ever forget.”
For Todd Nicholson, seeing his wife and two children wearing Team Canada jerseys in the stands at Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre is something he’ll remember vividly for the rest of his life, just as he can still see his family cheering for him in Lillehammer, Norway at sledge hockey’s very first Paralympic Games “clear as day.”
“The tournament hadn’t started yet, we were just warming up for our first game, and I looked up into the stands and I saw my parents sitting there,” the Kinburn, Ont. native said. “(They) had travelled halfway around the world to watch me play a game that I didn’t think I was going to play anymore.”
Labonté, who served as captain for his final three years on the team, called winning gold for Canada at the 2006 Paralympic Games in Turin the standout moment off his on-ice career, “especially because we came there (as) the underdogs.”
But off the ice, the Hull, Que. native said he’ll “miss the dressing room atmosphere.” That includes many pranks, just as on any other sports team, although you may not see prosthetic legs taped to the ceiling in most locker rooms.
“People sometimes, they ask about my sport, and they talk about my disability (and) the two are related,” Labonté said. “It’s just a part of our lives … We don’t think about it, but we joke about it.”
St.-Pamphile, Que. native Hervé Lord agrees the team bonding that happens behind the scenes is an important part of what makes Canada’s National Sledge Hockey Team a success on the international stage. “It’s just like you’re second family away from home.”
And together, Team Canada’s four retiring players have also seen sledge hockey make tremendous strides, from recognition of the sport to improvements in calibre and equipment.
“When I started, we used to have sleds that we called blue bombers – they weighed about 50 pounds each,” Lord said with a chuckle. “A sled today weighs about eight to ten pounds and it’s so much quicker; the kids today make it look so easy, with their finesse and agility.”
“Seeing where it’s gone from to where it is now, I think the sky’s the limit,” Nicholson added.
Rosen said part of what has helped the game grow over the past decade is the promotion of sledge hockey players as “not just great disabled athletes, but great athletes.”
For both the sport itself and the game’s up-and-coming young stars, as Rosen points out, it seems “anything is possible.”