VANCOUVER -- First, the Canadian women's hockey team won Olympic gold. Three days later, the men accomplished the same feat at the Vancouver Games.
Now it's up to the Canadian sledge hockey squad to complete the gold medal hat trick.
The Canadian team that claimed victory four years ago in Turin is back to defend its crown at the Vancouver Paralympics.
“As an athlete, nobody's happy unless you win the gold medal,” said forward Hervé Lord. “Everybody wants to come out on top and that's the attitude that we have, the whole team. We're going to Vancouver to win the gold medal.”
The Canadian squad enters the Paralympics ranked third in the world. The team won bronze at the 2009 sledge hockey world championship, finishing behind the Americans and runner-up Norway.
Canada was ranked fourth heading into Turin, where it beat Norway in the gold medal game. The Canadians scored on their first shot of the game and goaltender Paul Rosen held the fort en route to a 3-0 victory.
Forward Billy Bridges sealed the win with an empty-net goal and was named to the Paralympic all-star team.
“Blanking (Norway) in the gold medal game is an experience that I don't think any of us will ever forget,” Bridges said in a recent interview.
Lord, 52, will be competing in his fifth Paralympics and he said there's no reason why the Canadians can't defend their crown.
“The team we had in Turin is almost the same as the one we have this year going to Vancouver, minus two guys,” he said. “We did the same in Turin. We took each and every game like it was a gold medal game.”
Lord couldn't help but notice how boisterous the Vancouver fans were after each Olympic hockey victory. A win of any kind was met with chanting and dancing in the streets.
He's hoping the fans who show up to watch the Paralympic team compete at the University of British Columbia's Thunderbird Arena will exhibit a similar level of enthusiasm.
“We played a game at UBC last year to try the facility and the place was just packed,” he said. “To us it was just a little preview of what's coming up in Vancouver. Everybody is really excited about sledge hockey and the whole Paralympics.”
Sledge hockey made its Paralympic debut in Lillehammer in 1994.
As in ice hockey, each team puts six players on the ice at a time, including a goaltender. To compete, players must have a permanent disability in the lower body.
The athletes sit on a metal frame that is attached to two blades and hold hockey sticks that are 75 centimetres long. One end of the stick has a spike to help move the sledge, while the other end is curved to handle the puck.
Canada took sledge hockey bronze in Lillehammer, silver in Nagano in 1998, and was fourth in Salt Lake City in 2002.
Lord began his sledge hockey career in 1987, four years after his right leg was amputated above the knee following a car accident.
The Statistics Canada employee also has a silver medal from the Nagano Games in 100-metre short-track sledge racing.
Lord takes a bit of ribbing from teammates for being the oldest player on the team.
“It doesn't bother me one bit. They're just jealous because they know they're not going to get there (play into their fifties),” he said with a laugh. “I don't feel 52, anyway. I always say I'll keep playing until my body gives up on me. But one thing with me is I always try to stay healthy, I eat properly, I train properly.”
When asked if there's one thing he hopes people take away from the sport during the Paralympics, Lord pointed to its physical nature.
“A stand-up hockey player, when you get hit into the boards, you've got Plexiglas there with flexibility,” he said. “But with us, when we get into the corner and we get hit hard, the board doesn't move. It's just like a brick wall.”
Bridges, who lists Washington Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin as his favourite player, agrees with Lord.
He says he's often asked what sledge hockey players do if they get knocked over.
“I want people to really understand that we're full-time athletes. Some of the guys on the team are almost benching 400 pounds,” he said."When we get hit, we just pop right back up just like they do in the NHL.”
Though the sledge hockey team hardly needs any added incentive to claim gold, Bridges said the athletes are drawing strength from one player who's been sidelined.
Matthew Cook, who competed in both the world championship and the world sledge hockey challenge that Canada lost to the U.S., is at home in Edmonton battling a return of the cancer that required the amputation of his left leg in 2006.
“He's just the best teammate that anyone could ever ask for,” Bridges said. “Anything that we're doing, he's in our thoughts. He's a major inspiration to us, even when he wasn't sick. He's just that great of a guy.”
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