For anyone who’s ever met Billy Bridges, the odds they’ve seen him without a smile are about the same as one day winning the lottery.
For the man who holds sledge hockey so close to his heart, it’s no surprise that he’s flashing a grin so often considering how blessed he feels of playing a sport that’s growing quickly from one Canadian coast to the other.
A Summerside, P.E.I., native who moved to Toronto at a young age to get closer to some of the country’s best hospitals, and who travels across the country every year playing and promoting sledge hockey, there’s no one better suited to talk about the game’s growth across Canada than Bridges.
“I feel like sledge hockey has just gotten so big now,” he says. “No matter where we’d go we used start all of our speeches with ‘If you know sledge hockey, raise your hand,’ and no hands would go up. Now we can just ask ‘Who’s seen Tyler McGregor or Brad Bowden on TV?’ and every hand goes up. It’s great. The sport is really raising awareness and it’s awesome.”
He may not live in Atlantic Canada anymore, but Bridges has never forgotten his roots, and has made it one of his goals to head home as often as possible to continue developing the game he loves so much.
With the 2016 World Sledge Hockey Challenge on the ice in Bridgewater, N.S., this week, Bridges is back on his native coast and playing in front of some familiar faces.
“Billy has been absolutely tremendous to the growth of sledge hockey in Nova Scotia,” says Darren Cossar, executive director of Hockey Nova Scotia. “From when we first started, he’s been giving his time to do clinics for beginners and he really demonstrated the sport to the local press. It was impressive for the kids to see him, but also incredible for the public relations and marketing side of things because he’s made a mandate of putting sledge hockey out there.”
With a handful of programs now in place, Nova Scotia is not only forever grateful to Bridges’ commitment to the development of sledge hockey in its area, but the province embraced the opportunity of working with such a passionate character.
“Both the kids and adults in our programs, that’s all they talk about. It’s Billy Bridges all the time,” says Cossar. “He’s made a lasting impression on every person involved in our programs. It’s just a connection he has with people; he’s real, genuine, and humble. You’d never know meeting him and talking to him that he’s one of the best sledge hockey players in the world.”
Whether you consider him one of or simply the best sledge hockey player in the world, his numbers speak for themselves.
Bridges is the all-time leading scorer for Canada’s National Sledge Team, racking up 161 goals and 172 assists in 184 games entering the 2016 World Sledge Hockey Challenge, all since 2004, when sledge hockey became a part of the Hockey Canada program; by that time, he already had six years of national team experience on his résumé.
But the numbers don’t matter to Bridges, and he’s looking forward to being passed on the all-time scoring charts by the new generation of Team Canada. That means the program is thriving, and that’s most important.
Bridges’ competitiveness on the ice is countered by his humbleness off of it, and that’s made him a spokesperson not of his own exploits, but rather about the sport he’s dedicated more than half of his life to.
Always passionate about hockey in general, Bridges’ spina bifida prevented him from playing organized hockey with his able-bodied friends growing up.
But strapping into a sled for the first time at age 12, he quickly made sledge hockey his new passion, and had a national team roster spot just two years later at the tender age of 14, the youngest player ever to make Team Canada.
“My dad played a lot of hockey in P.E.I. growing up, but for me, sledge hockey is something that just wasn’t around until I was 12,” he remembers. “I played with my brother and father every day, all the way up until I made the national team, and it was great. That’s why now it’s just so much fun to raise the awareness and let people know that everyone can play. If you’re disabled, you’re not going to be by yourself.”
Based off his own experience, Bridges is making sure that everyone with (or without) a disability who is interested in playing Canada’s game not only knows about sledge hockey, but has access to it.
After partnering up with Cossar almost a decade ago, Bridges comes to the East Coast on a yearly basis to help his wife – Canada’s National Women’s Team alumna and Olympic gold medallist Sami Jo Small – with her hockey schools, at which they’ve made it a tradition to strap the students into sleds.
When he left P.E.I. all those years ago, never did Bridges think that he’d be one of the faces of a sport, driving its development so close to home, and bringing him a life he never expected.
After finding sledge hockey success on and off the ice, he has all the reason in the world to keep smiling.