TORONTO – There aren't many hockey players who could persevere through a serious injury like Dominic Larocque.
A member of the Canadian Forces who lost his left leg in Afghanistan, Larocque decided to give sledge hockey a try after completing his rehabilitation. Just 10 months later, the 23-year-old from Valleyfield, Que., finds himself playing for the national team.
“It's just amazing how much he's come along as a sledge player,” coach Mike Mondin said Thursday. “That's just pure athleticism.'”
Larocque comes by it honestly. He excelled at hockey, soccer and football as a kid and joined the Van Doos infantry regiment in 2005.
The moment that changed his life forever came on Nov., roughly four months after he arrived in Afghanistan. Larocque was riding in the back of an armoured vehicle when it drove over an improvised explosive device _ resulting in a blast he has absolutely no memory of.
“I'm still thinking about it,” Larocque said in French through a translator. “It will always be in my head. You have to live with it.
“I'm able to talk about what happened now. I'm still smiling.”
Larocque is one of six new players who have recently joined the Canadian sledge team, which is undergoing a pretty serious turnover following the Paralympics in Vancouver. It's only fitting that he caught the attention of Hockey Canada officials during a recent selection camp at CFB Petawawa.
The team has gathered in Toronto this week for a series of three exhibition games against the U.S., which
began Thursday night.
The Americans won gold at the Vancouver Games while Canada settled for a disappointing fourth. The teams are bitter rivals – a 2009 fight between them has generated more than 237,000 views on YouTube – and expect to play some competitive games against one another.
“It's a real good measuring stick for us,” said Mondin.
One of the most notable aspects of Larocque's story is that it doesn't make him stand out in the dressing room. Every member of the team has had to deal with a traumatic event or hardship, and participating in the sport is something many players have used to move forward with their life.
As a result, the atmosphere around the group is much different than what you find around a typical hockey team.
“Every player's quite a story,” said Mondin. “Everybody's got something. It might be something from birth or might be a car accident or it might be cancer. They're so supportive of each other.
“When somebody gets injured, it's quite a bit different than able-bodied players, where they're thinking ‘Oh good, I get a chance.’ These guys don't think like that at all.”
One of the thoughts Larocque couldn't shake during a year-long recovery from his injury is that he needed to get active again. He found it tricky to get comfortable the first time he was strapped into a sled, but soon developed the co-ordination necessary to stick-handle and manoeuvre on the ice.
The process continues. In addition to the national team, he also plays with the Montreal Transit squad.
“I'm far from the top,” said Larocque. “I've just started. I'm going to be better and better.”
Away from the ice, he's moving forward as well. Larocque is part of the Soldier On program – designed to help injured or ill military personnel participate in sport – and also helps wounded soldiers run errands and readjust to life.
“It's different for everybody,” he said. “At the beginning it's a shock. For me, it was easier (to recover) than a lot of people. There was a few guys being injured (around me).
“I was not alone in this.”
And he wouldn't change a thing. Larocque believes Canadian soldiers are doing important work in Afghanistan and he felt it was his duty to contribute to the cause.
“If I had the same option, I would still go,” he said.