Not only did Shane Gryzko and Cam Jaeger see their first live sledge hockey game when Canada faced off against the United States in the gold medal game of the 2011 World Sledge Hockey Challenge – they also got to give the sport a try.
They were a couple of the lucky fans who had the chance of picking up sledge hockey sticks, which have blades for shooting and passing on one end and picks for propelling up and down the ice on the other, strapping themselves into sleds which have blades along the bottom, and challenging each other to a shootout competition during intermission.
The catch was that they had to do it in front of a crowd of about 1,600 watching the action unfold on the international surface at the WinSport Canada Athletic & Ice Complex in Calgary, Alta., which has become Hockey Canada’s new home rink. The crowd whooped, hollered and even chuckled a little, as the sledge hockey rookies attempted to manoeuvre themselves around the ice while giving the tough sport that requires strength, stamina and skill a good try.
“That’s definitely the highlight,” 24-year-old Gryzko of Calgary said of his first-ever sledge experience. “It was awesome to try.”
“It’s a lot harder than it looks,” 25-year-old Jaeger of Cochrane, Alta., added. “I was falling all over the place!”
While they may have had trouble putting the puck into the net, Gryzko and Jaeger did score Team Canada jerseys for their efforts, which they proudly wore as they cheered their National Sledge Team onto a 4-1 gold medal victory.
“It’s really fast; much faster than I thought it was going to be,” Jaegar said of his seeing his first
live sledge match-up. “It’s a great game (and) a good rivalry.”
“It’s maybe even more exciting than I expected,” Gryzko agreed. “It’s really quick hockey; they’re all really talented.”
The young men said they’d been discussing just how “gorgeous” Hockey Canada’s new home is at WinSport Canada, nestled in a brand new facility at Canada Olympic Park, where the country’s top athletes come to train.
“This is my first time here as well, and it’s a really nice little rink,” Gryzko said.
“I think it’s really important for when teams come here from other places, and just for teams that are here as well,” Jaegar added.
During what was the first gold medal game to be hosted out of Hockey Canada’s recently-opened rink, the stands were a sea of red and white, while bells and clappers echoed through the building and gave the country’s top sledge players the noisy encouragement they needed to push through three periods and claim the 2011 World Sledge Hockey Challenge title.
Father and son fans Russ and Eric Heal, also of Calgary, sat on the edges of their seats during the second period, as they watched and waited in anticipation for Canada to break a 1-1 tie. Team captain Greg Westlake finally notched what would be the game-winner at 8:18 in the period, sending the Heals into happy hysterics.
“Put it upstairs!” Eric, 13, said as Westlake released his shot.
“Right in the slot, Eric!” Russ, 49, said approvingly, just after the puck soared into the back of the American net.
“It’s really convenient,” Russ said of having four new rinks, including Hockey Canada’s home ice surface, all at Canada Olympic Park. “It’s really great to see the city host high calibre sports all the time.”
Calgarian couple Drew Allan, 37, and Maria Sison, 36, purchased a couple of Hockey Canada’s Holiday Hockey Cheer packages, which besides the gold medal sledge game also include admission to two intersquad Red-White games, one exhibition game and two pre-competition games for the upcoming 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship in Calgary and Edmonton.
Neither had ever seen a sledge hockey game played out in front of them before.
“They compete pretty hard,” Allan said of the North American rival teams, also noting that a lot of families were out “having fun” while they took in all the action.
Whether it’s Canada’s National Junior Team or National Sledge Team, Sison said, “we just want to cheer for Canada!”