Takayuki Endo was born without legs. Kazuhiro Takahashi lost the use of his after a snowboarding accident.
Yet while their personal stories differ, Endo and Takahashi share something special in common: both absolutely adore sledge hockey.
What makes this shared interest so special? How about the fact that only about 50 people in Japan, which has a population of 127 million, actually play sledge hockey.
Canada, on the other hand, has about 1,000 players across the country, from a population of 34.4 million, to draw from when putting together its national team. No doubt that makes Japan’s 8-0 loss to the red and white earlier this week at the 2011 World Sledge Hockey Challenge in Calgary, Alta., seem like much less of a blowout.
Despite growing up in Saitama, where hockey isn’t exactly the most popular sport, not to mention his lack of legs, Endo loves playing because of the “physical contact” involved, he said shortly after sliding his sled off the ice at WinSport Canada’s new Athletic and Ice Complex. Through Japan’s assistant coach, also the unofficial translator for the Japanese players, 33-year-old team captain Endo describes himself as an “all-around player” with “good speed” on the ice.
Takahashi played ice hockey as a young boy, inspired to pick up the sport at age nine by his favourite team back home in Tokyo, but was forced to switch from skates to a sled in his early 20s, after making a bad jump on a mountain just north of Japan’s capital city, and suffering a serious spinal cord injury that left him paraplegic.
Shortly after being released from hospital, Takahashi discovered there was another way to play his favourite sport. He said he enjoys the challenge of using all of his upper body strength, including “both arms and hands,” to make his way up and down the ice and put the puck in the net.
“He’s puck hungry,” the team translator said of the typical centerman.
Japanese assistant captain Takahashi said continuing to play sports just as he did growing up, especially sledge hockey, has helped him stay focused and motivated since that horrible accident more than a decade ago. He’s also very “proud of playing for Team Japan.”
And while one has legs and the other does not, Takahashi and Endo share some other important similarities, including the desire to grow the sport of sledge hockey in Japan.
“We don’t have enough ice arenas in Japan,” Endo said. “We have to recruit (more) wheelchair players.”
Takahashi, 32, said the better Japan performs on the international stage, the more interested people back home will become in watching, and perhaps even joining, the sport they both find so exciting.
That’s why the two team leaders for Japan also have the same sledge goal in mind – winning gold at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
Considering the Japanese “Paralympic shocker,” which saw the underdogs top the Canadians 3-1 in the semifinals last March, anything seems possible for the Vancouver 2010 silver medallists.
“The next Paralympics, we would like to get a better position!” Endo confidently declared. “We (will) have to try hard every day.”
“We are still on our way to our final goal,” Takahashi said. “We want to organize sledge hockey just like Canada … and try our best to be a more competitive team.”