When the puck dropped to begin the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, it marked 20 years since sledge hockey made its debut on the biggest stage in sports.
Sledge hockey first appeared on the Paralympic program in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994, with five teams competing: Canada, Estonia, Great Britain, Norway and Sweden.
Despite the sport being new to the Games, the competitors weren’t new to one another.
In 1992, Canada had hosted the World Cup in Hull, Que., and come out victorious against some of the same teams they would see again two years later.
Todd Nicholson, a member of Canada’s National Sledge Team from 1992 to 2010, says the tournament prepared the team for the style of play they’d see in Europe. Just like today, the European teams played a more positional game – dictated by the larger ice surface they’re accustomed to – and the North American teams countered with a more physical game.
The players also met up with a few make-shift sledge teams in preparation for the Games. There were a lot of able-bodied players taking up the game as well, says Nicholson, and they provided some opposition to help the national team get Games ready.
Just getting to those Lillehammer Games proved to be a financial challenge. With no team funding back then, the players paid for expenses out of pocket. Nicholson estimates it cost him between $4,000 and $5,000 to go to Norway. It was a burden he and his teammates were willing to bear to grow their game.
“We realized where the sport was and what it was going to take to get the sport to evolve to where it is today,” he says. “For us as athletes it was an honour to be able to compete in the same venues and have our Games in the same place as where the Olympics had been held.”
The players also knew they had to show their athletic mettle.
“We understood how important this moment was,” says Nicholson. “And we needed to ensure that the sport was competitive and entertaining enough. The last thing we wanted was for anybody to feel sorry for us. We were not crippled kids or people playing a game for fun.”
Canada opened its schedule against Sweden. For Nicholson, who would go on to compete in four more Games, the memory of that first time on Paralympic ice remains. He still recalls skating around the net in warm-up and seeing his parents in the crowd. “It was easy to find them – there were only about 150 people in the stands.”
Canada would drop its first Paralympic game 2-1 to the Swedes.
A lack of knowledge about the sport and 10 a.m. start times initially deterred people from coming to the games. But as the week went on and word spread about the level of competition, the crowds got larger; Nicholson estimates by the end of the tournament up to 4,000 fans were coming out.
Among those were hundreds of local school kids. Six schools had been assigned to Canada, and the students would show up daily decked out in red and white and waving the Canadian flag. The support did not go unnoticed. “We split up into six groups and visited the schools while we were there to say thank you,” says Nicholson.
Canada would not allow a goal the rest of the way. It beat Estonia 5-0 and battled both Norway and Great Britain to scoreless draws. At the end of the round-robin, a 1-1-2 record left Canada tied with Great Britain for third place. The two countries would play for bronze.
Canada won the rematch 2-0. Sweden defeated Norway 1-0 in a shootout to capture the sport’s first Paralympic gold medal.
Even though the team expected gold going in, Nicholson says he felt proud having the bronze put around his neck. He also says it’s probably what the team deserved.
“You hope when you come home that the best team won,” he says. “I feel I came home from those Games realizing and understanding that the best team did win. We realized what we had accomplished and were able to follow that up as the years progressed.”
Nicholson would help Canada win silver in 1998 and captain the team to gold in 2006.
He’s now attending his sixth Paralympic Games in Sochi, but his first off the ice. In his current role as the chair of the International Paralympic Committee’s Athlete Council, Nicholson sat in the executive box at the Opening Ceremonies. Just a few seats away sat Vladimir Putin.
Despite no longer wearing the Canadian jersey, Nicholson was still waving the flag, jokingly apologizing to the Russian president about Canada already taking two hockey gold medals home from his country. “I apologized ahead of time that if the sledge team also wins then we know where hockey belongs,” Nicholson laughs. “His comment to that was we’ll have to see, and if that does happen I can’t guarantee you’re going to get out.”
Nicholson could never have imaged where he or the sport would find themselves in 2014. Both the number of athletes playing sledge hockey and the number of media members covering them has grown substantially. And advances in equipment have brought even more skill to the ice.
Looking back at 20 years of sledge hockey in the Paralympic Games, Nicholson says he’s grateful the sport was welcomed into the program, allowing not only the players the chance to live out their competitive dreams but also fans the opportunity to watch these high-performance athletes compete.