Let’s set the scene:
INT. RENTED VAN – DAY
Jacob LeBlanc, his mom, Cynthia, and his three siblings buckle up as they depart their Moncton, N.B., home for Toronto. Amid the snacks and
distractions necessary to sustain five people on a two-day, 15-hour, 1,500-kilometre road trip are the baggage and belongings needed for a week away
from home. In the midst of it all sits a sled.
“It sounds like a reality show,” says Cynthia, laughing.
Jacob, 13, is one of 29 sledge hockey players at Hockey Canada’s first-ever NextGen Prospects Camp. He’ll be spending four days practicing and scrimmaging
with other up-and-coming sledge hockey players from across the country.
It’s also March break in New Brunswick, which meant Cynthia had a choice: disperse her other three children – Sam, 17, Dominique, 15, and Marielle, 10 –
among relatives at home or pack everyone in for an impromptu family get-away.
While many sites of the city will be seen, it’s the west end’s MasterCard Centre that provides a backdrop for at least a couple of hours each day. On Day 1
of camp, Cynthia proudly watched from the stands as her son wore a Team Canada jersey for the first time. Marielle quietly sat by her side, as focussed on
the app on her phone as her brother’s activities on the ice.
It was a long trip but one well worth it.
“A lot of character building – that’s my big, big thing,” says Cynthia about what she hopes Jacob takes from the experience. “I want him to be able to
learn to learn, watch the other people and be an encourager.”
“I hope at the end of this camp that I’d be a better player and more of a team player,” says Jacob.
That’s not to suggest that he’s selfish; rather, it’s more about learning how to be part of a regular unit. Until this season he didn’t have a team to play
He’s registered with the P.E.I. Ice Breakers and joins the team when they need an extra body at tournaments. Just last weekend he recorded three assists as
the team won the annual Cape Breton sledge hockey tournament.
Every other Saturday there’s ice time for sledge at home in Moncton, and every Sunday there’s time in Fredericton, with the co-ed Caps, so the family
drives him the two hours west.
No matter, Jacob had been seen.
“When I learned I was invited to camp I was amazed because me being only 13 years old and already being invited to try out for the development team was
pretty cool,” he says. “That means that I must be pretty good. It just built my self-confidence. And to meet all these other high-class athletes is sweet.”
Jacob may be both the youngest and the smallest player at camp, but as far as he’s concerned, he’s right where he wants to be.
“Once you get to nationals it’s so much faster and so much more complicated than recreational games,” he says. “There’s a lot more passing, more speed and
more competitive players to play against.”
Coming to camp this week has allowed Jacob to come full circle in a way. One of the camp’s special guests is Greg Westlake, captain of Canada’s National
Sledge Team. Back in 2011, Westlake was in Moncton as part of the Canadian Olympic Committee’s Heroes Tour. After posing for a photo together, Westlake
suggested Jacob try sledge hockey himself and gave Cynthia names of people to contact.
It was a thought that had been percolating in Cynthia’s head for years.
“Like every other kid Jacob wanted to play in the NHL, but we knew that wasn’t going to happen,” says Cynthia. Jacob was born without his right leg, hip or
pelvis, one of only eight documented cases in the world. “I think he was three years old when I went into an RBC bank and there was this huge poster of
someone in a sledge and I was like, ‘Jacob, that’s what you can do.’”
Not long after that meeting with Westlake, Canada’s National Sledge Development Team was in Moncton and hosted a demo. It was Jacob’s first time in a sled.
“I thought it wouldn’t be that difficult because it’s an adaptive sport so I saw it as easier,” he says. “It was actually more difficult because you use
more upper body muscle and at that time I didn’t really have any, so it made it more complicated but it was still pretty fun.”
It also put a new dream in motion.
“This jersey is awesome,” says Jacob, looking down at his chest. “This week is actually realizing one of my goals, to be on the national team. This is the
beginning of it and I hope this isn’t the end.”