Labonté’s Look – Monday, March 10

Canadians on a mission
Two games, two wins. Two convincing wins. Two wins against two former powerhouses: Sweden and Norway.

When I first started out in sledge hockey in the early 1990’s, Sweden dominated the world stage. It was the team to beat. After its historic gold medal in Lillehammer in 1994, when sledge hockey was first admitted to the Paralympic Games, the Tre Kronor slowly saw its domination fade. At the turn of the century, it seemed to be able to do no better than third and collected its fair share of bronze medals. Unfortunately, during the last few years, the Swedish program has seen difficult times.  

For its part, Norway is the most decorated nation in the history of sledge hockey. From the initial World Cup in 1991 to Vancouver 2010, Norwegians were on the podium at every major tournament, an exception run that came to an end at the 2012 world championship. That’s quite an achievement. Throughout my career, the most fiercely contested games I was involved in were almost all against Norway. However, since 2010, the Norwegians seem to be running on empty, barely qualifying for the Sochi Games.

Our Canadian players have played brilliantly so far, and the team is exactly where it wants to be at this stage of the tournament. And it’s not just one line carrying the load; everybody has contributed – all three lines are scoring, and the defencemen are contributing offence as well! With two solid victories, the message sent to the other teams could not be clearer: the Canadians have come to these Games extremely well prepared.

I also want to take this opportunity to mention the goal scored by Ben Delaney – our 17-year-old sensation – against Sweden. It was his first goal, the game-winning goal to boot, in his first ever Paralympic game. Congratulations, Ben!    

North American domination
It was predictable – the United States and Canada sit atop their respective groups. Assured of being part of the final four, these two teams can now prepare themselves for their third and final preliminary round game without worrying about the outcome.

The other two semifinal spots are still up for grabs. The Czech Republic, Norway and even Sweden can still hope to make it out of Group A. In Group B, Russia and South Korea are still in the race. With only one game left to play, the pressure will be enormous. In short, Tuesday promises to be an exciting day!  

Paralympic recollection
Let’s go back in time. Canada’s first game against Sweden reminded me of the semifinal we played against the Swedes at the 1998 Nagano Paralympics. We were undoubtedly the underdog against the powerful Swedish machine. But what a game we played!
  
I still clearly remember the relentless efforts of the game’s most dominating player at the time, Sweden’s Jan Edbom. As the game wore on, he became more and more frustrated as our goaltender, Pierre Pichette, kept making spectacular save after spectacular save. An unexpected 2-1 win was our ticket to the Paralympic final.

What a great memory!

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