It doesn’t take an engineering degree to build a successful hockey program, but a little basic knowledge of structural integrity and assembling from the bottom up is prudent to the construction.
Without a solid foundation, a top-heavy design will only stand for so long before crumbling.
So, when Hockey Canada decided to introduce a development program component to its National Sledge Team, it received an enthusiastic stamp of approval and the plans were set into motion to execute the blueprint.
Canada’s National Sledge Development Team was established last season to continue improvement of Canada’s National Sledge Team program, which was integrated within Hockey Canada in 2004.
It’s both challenged those on the national team to continue to enhance their skills-set, while feeding the system with younger prospects who will eventually take their place on Team Canada.
And after a full dress rehearsal in 2010-11, when the development team conducted three training camps and played six exhibition games against the United States, the early results have indeed been constructive.
The development team won all six meetings against the Americans, including five by one goal, and the final one of those in overtime.
According to National Sledge Development Team head coach Todd Sargeant, the camps included focused workouts and the games were played with intensity. Both served to create the building blocks to move the development program forward and upward.
“In order to have a successful national team, there needs to be competition for positions,” says Sargeant, who is also president of the Ontario Sledge Hockey Association.
About 18 players participated in the development program last season, hailing from Québec, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia. Sargeant maintains that sledge hockey continues to grow nationally and it won’t be long before all areas of the country are represented on the national stage.
One of those who undoubtedly benefited from the development team experience was defenceman James Gemmell. After playing with Canada’s National Sledge Development Team last season, he was able to crack the national team this season.
“It’s definitely a great program,” says Gemmell, 31. “I know there are a lot of other guys on that development team pushing for spots on the national team. Without the development team, there’s a very good chance I wouldn’t have made the national team this year.”
After a three-month stint with Canada’s National Sledge Team back in 2007-08, the Quesnel, B.C., product found himself out of the program and struggling to rejoin for three straight seasons.
For him, it wasn’t a matter of talent or skill, but of trusting in his own abilities and gaining self-assurance in his game.
“I think the development team helped me a lot,” he says. “Getting power play and penalty kill time, along with handling the puck against better players, brought me a lot of in-game confidence.”
Sargeant agrees: “(Gemmell’s) experience with our program was instrumental in getting him to that point this year.”
It is this type of progression that Sargeant and others, such as Hockey Canada manager of hockey operations and national teams Adam Crockatt had in mind when they worked diligently to form the development team and find the necessary funding for its operation.
“There has been a significant improvement in the players from last year to now,” Sargeant says. “This was evident in the testing results at the national team selection camp (last fall). The development players are more aware of what it takes to get to the top level and it gives them targets to shoot for.”
Essentially, the national sledge development program mirrors the national men’s program in operation and scope. Players within the program are treated and introduced to several more hours of ice-time than they would have access to on their club teams.
Moreover, they are provided the best coaching and offered guidelines for health, nutrition and training techniques, just as any other high performance athlete would receive under the Hockey Canada umbrella.
“It is operated so these players get a taste of what the next level would be like,” says Sargeant, also head coach of Sledge Team Ontario and the London Blizzard. “A big lesson learned (from the program’s first year) was how valuable the players across the country found the program.”
And therein lies the key to the development program’s mandate. Sargeant admits that because not every regional sledge program operates at the same development stage across the country, it’s important to have a national template, so even when players on the development team return to their home provinces, they’re able to follow the same plan for training and playing.
“Sledge hockey at the grassroots level does not provide the training necessary for elite players to continue to progress,” he says. “Having them brought together to train at camps allows for better competition and training to help them along.
“I was very pleased with the program that we operated last season.”
Now, initiating such a program is one step, but keeping the National Sledge Development Team ascending to greater heights becomes the next challenge.
Improvements in areas like generating more competition for its players and growing the game both nationally and internationally are just two areas of focus for the future, but overall the development program has already paid tangible dividends to sledge hockey in Canada – even after just one season.
And it didn’t take an engineering degree to get it started.