The old cliché – if you build it, they will come – certainly applies in this case.
Just ask Brodie O’Keefe. He is manager of operations for the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship in Calgary but, earlier in his career, O’Keefe oversaw operations for the CARI Complex hockey arenas in Charlottetown, P.E.I. Charlottetown is O’Keefe’s home and he took pride in helping bring major hockey events to the island.
One of those events was the 2008 World Sledge Hockey Challenge. The top four sledge hockey countries in the world – Canada, Japan, Norway and the United States – compete in the tournament each year.
But, before the tournament could come to Charlottetown, O’Keefe and his staff had to make some changes to the arena. The goal was to make the CARI Complex sledge friendly. But what does that mean?
“The thresholds at the player and penalty box gates were removed (to allow players to easily go from off ice to on ice), and two feet of puck board along the benches was removed and replaced with plexiglass in order to allow players to see on the ice when on the bench,” says O’Keefe. “Plastic puck board was also placed in the hallways, dressing rooms and in the benches so that players could remain in their sledges when coming off the ice (the puck board worked the same as if there was ice in the hallways or on the bench). Finally, portions of the bench seats were removed to give players more room to maneuver when on the bench.”
Yes, these were major changes. For years, sledge hockey players had to practice and play games at regular hockey rinks. That posed a few challenges. One, many players would have to take their wheelchairs from the dressing rooms to the bench. Putting puck board on the floor, as O’Keefe mentioned, allowed them to get in their sleds in the dressing room and go all the way to the bench.
Two, without plexiglass on the benches, players who were on the bench couldn’t see the play. So, in years past, players would line up on the ice along the boards to watch the play, which limited the area where the actual game could take place.
The changes made at CARI Complex alleviated these and other problems. The changes took just over one month of work to complete and were done during down times at the complex, meaning some late nights for O’Keefe’s crew. But everything was done at the low cost of $12,500, with some of that money coming from a Hockey Canada grant to the CARI Complex.
Hockey Canada made the retrofit of regular hockey rinks one of its goals and has stuck to that. Throughout the country, old rinks are becoming sledge hockey friendly and this, in turn, has helped the sport grow. O’Keefe said that, in the weeks after the retrofit was complete and after Charlottetown played host to a successful World Sledge Hockey Challenge, ParaSport and Recreation P.E.I created the first sledge hockey program on the island. The program now competes with others in the Maritimes.
All of this is music to the ears of Adam Crockatt, manager of hockey operations/national teams with Hockey Canada, who oversees all operations with Canada’s National Sledge Team.
“The sport is growing from coast to coast and, along with the increased exposure of the national team and increased focus on accessibility, we are confident that this will lead to more sledge friendly facilities,” says Crockatt.
He points to UBC Thunderbird Arena as the model of sledge hockey facilities in the world. The main rink at UBC, thanks to the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, took the term retrofit to another level. The same changes that occurred in Charlottetown – namely, plexiglass cut-outs on the benches for players to see the ice – also happened in Vancouver. But, rather than puck board on the floor of the benches, UBC staff put in ice, making the transition from bench to playing surface as seamless as possible.
Further, plexiglass cut-outs were made at several corners of the rink for TV cameras. Anyone who watched the Paralympics on TV saw the very best in sledge hockey broadcasts as, for the first time, cameras were able to shoot from the perspective of the athletes on the ice.