The most important step for Kieran Block was to stop focusing on what he had lost. Only then did he discover what he could still become.
The former Western Hockey League player is set to reach another milestone in his recovery from a cliff jumping accident when he suits up this week for Canada at the IPC Sledge Hockey World Championship in Hamar, Norway.
It's been a long road for the 26-year-old from Edmonton, who shattered bones in both his legs in the 2007 accident that ended his hockey career – at least the more traditional form of the sport – and left him with what he calls “low mobility.”
“I wouldn't be where I am today if it didn't happen,” Block said Monday. “I'm so happy with where I'm at and how I'm doing and the things that I'm doing in my life. Without my injury, I wouldn't be here.
“I'm pretty grateful for all of the experiences I've had in my life.”
Block spent four seasons with the Medicine Hat Tigers – winning a WHL championship in 2004 – and played alongside a number of players who would go on to the NHL, including Cam Barker, Joffrey Lupul, Clarke MacArthur, Kris Russell, Darren Helm, Ryan Hollweg, Derek Dorsett and David Schlemko.
He also spent one season with the hometown University of Alberta Golden Bears before misjudging a cliff jump from more than 30 feet in the summer of 2007.
Initially, some teammates and friends were scared to see what had happened to Block. Even for him, it was a long time before he could comfortably discuss the accident.
An important step in his recovery came when he took up sledge hockey in 2010.
“It was pretty traumatic at the time,” said Block. “It was scary. I didn't know where I was going to be or what my life would look like anymore. Since I started in sledge hockey, I really turned things around.”
Block, who is able to walk but has limited mobility, is one of eight Canadian players that will make his world championship debut when Canada opens the tournament against Italy on Sunday.
The program underwent a major shakeup following a disappointing fourth-place finish at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics. While the revamped roster has already experienced success – capturing gold at a tournament in Japan earlier this year – the world championship serves as a major measuring stick.
“It's such a big competition,” said Block. “We finally get to prove what we're capable of and where we think we are.”
The team is scheduled to depart for Europe on Tuesday. Over the weekend, players gathered for a short camp at CFB Borden – located about 100 kilometres north of Toronto – which included two on-ice sessions with soldiers.
The sledge team maintains close ties with the Canadian Forces and boasts a veteran in forward Dominic Larocque, who lost his left leg while serving in Afghanistan.
The core of the current squad first started taking shape during a camp at CFB Petawawa in 2010, when six new players were added to the national team. They've spent the last two years building towards a big event like the world championship.
“It's just kind of bringing us back full circle actually,” forward Kevin Rempel said of gathering at CFB Borden over the weekend. “In a way, this is bringing us back to when we got together and met each other. It's helping with the team bonding and just getting us ready for going away.
“It's kind of nostalgic,” Rempel added. “That feeling of when we came together and look how far we've come.”
Block is proud of his own progress.
He was the lone rookie to join the national team this season. Interestingly, he's been tasked with a similar checking-line role on the sledge team to the one he once filled in the WHL.
The return to the ice has him looking ahead rather than behind.
“It used to be really hard to deal with,” Block said of his accident. “It was only because I hadn't really accepted what had happened yet. I was still thinking in my head: ‘This shouldn't have happened to me and I deserve better.’
“Now I have no problems with it. I'm comfortable with where I'm at and I'm comfortable with who I am.”
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