From Western Canada tournaments to WHL demonstrations, Hockey Alberta helps promote the sledge game
Calgarian Nolan Wiebe fell in love with sledge hockey when a friend introduced him to the game 19 years ago.
"And I've been hooked ever since," said the 27-year-old, who plays for the Calgary Scorpions, a senior sledge hockey team which has been running for over a decade. "It's fast-paced, up-tempo.
"It's like the NHL, just a little bit different."
Simply put, sledge hockey is the Paralympic version of ice hockey. Making its debut at the 1994 Paralympic Games in Lillehammer, the game is fast-paced, highly physical and growing significantly in Alberta and Canada.
In 2004, Hockey Alberta – the governing body for the sport in the province – together with the provincial government, became involved with sledge hockey to assist with its growth and development in Alberta.
"It's just like hockey," says Tim Leer, Hockey Alberta's senior manager of hockey development, who oversees the sledge hockey program. "When you watch talented players play, it's a very exciting game to watch.
"It's no different than a regular hockey game. The second thing is, it's an alternative to hockey. You don't have to have a disability to play sledge."
The rules for sledge hockey are similar to able-bodied hockey. Each team consists of six players, including the goaltender. Line changes, equipment, ice surfaces, nets and pucks are all similar to hockey. In senior sledge hockey, body checking is allowed.
However, instead of skates, players sit in sleds that are atop two hockey skate blades. Players carry two sticks – about one-third the length of a regular hockey stick with a metal pick on the end for movement – instead of one.
Although registration fees are typically lower than for minor hockey, custom-fit sleds are quite expensive. They range anywhere between $600 to $800.
"Our approach as Hockey Alberta is, yes, we want to recruit and make sure the disabled community knows about it as an option as an activity," Leer said. "But also, for able-bodied athletes.
At the moment, hundreds of players in the province are playing the game.
Hockey Alberta's focus at the moment is exposure.
"It's still a relatively new game to people," Leer said. "They don't know much about it."
The sport is gaining traction through school programs, clubs and minor hockey associations to try to engage the communities of Alberta.
Attracting a number of teams of various levels, Leduc hosted the seventh-annual Western Canada Sledge Hockey Tournament earlier this year. Around 200 participants attended in junior (15-years-old and under) and senior A and B categories among 16 teams.
In 2012, the tournament will be held at WinSport's sledge hockey-friendly ice surface at Canada Olympic Park.
Hockey Alberta also hosts a summer development camp in Camrose each year, teaming up with its high performance hockey program for male and female hockey players.
"We combine the sledge camp with that to expose players," Leer said. "We bring in Team Canada players and coaches with off-ice sessions to help take players to that next level.
"Now, we're seeing four or five players being invited to Team Canada tryout-camps where as before, it was only one player. We're slowly getting there."
Growth at the grassroots level of sledge hockey is important for Hockey Alberta.
The success of the sport in Alberta has created demand for a new, formalized league starting this fall which will feature two or three divisions, plus a championship series at season's end.
Meanwhile, Hockey Alberta has teamed up with the Western Hockey League to promote sledge hockey with the assistance of the five WHL teams in the province. The game will be on display to a large audience between periods during the 2011-12 season.
Hockey Alberta is also teaming up with Hockey Canada to host the 2011 World Sledge Hockey Challenge from Nov. 27 to Dec. 3 in Calgary.
"That's going to create a lot of exposure," Leer said. "It'll be a great event to promote the game, especially in the city of Calgary."
To compete at an international level – at, for example, the Paralympics – athletes have some type of disability. Team Canada captain Greg Westlake had both his feet amputated at 10 months old. Retired captain Jean Labonté, who helped Canada to Paralympic gold in Turin 2006 and a fourth-place finish in Vancouver 2010, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma and had his leg amputated in 1990.
However, at a recreational level, the situation is sometimes a bit different.
"A lot of clubs that we have throughout Alberta, it's because one person or player has a disability," Leer said. "And around them, the friends and family of that player are supporting him or her and playing sledge.
"It's an opportunity for people to get out and play the game of hockey in a different way."