The 2010 Winter Paralympic Games begin tomorrow in Vancouver, and I am extremely excited! After the outpouring of pride and nationalism shown by Canadians and Canadian athletes during the two weeks of the Olympic Games, the Paralympic Games are an excellent event to continue the building of Canadian patriotism. The gentleman in the photo to the left is Jean Labonté, the flag-bearer for Canada at the Paralympic Games, and you'll probably read his name on this site a lot over the next nine days. He's the captain of the defending Paralympic gold medal champions, also known as Team Canada.
The Paralympics are open to athletes with physical and sensory disabilities, including those with cerebral palsy, mobility disabilities, visual disabilities and amputees. The name "Paralympics" derives from the Greek word "para," which means "alongside," in reference to the competition being held in parallel with the Olympic Games. Winter host cities have has the privilege of hosting both Games since 1992, when Albertville, France became the first city to stage both the Olympics and Paralympics.
Of all the sports played in the Paralympics, only sledge hockey and wheelchair curling each consist of a single tournament. These sports are open to those with lower-limb disabilities.
Ice sledge hockey was invented at a Swedish rehabilitation centre in the early 1960s, when a group of athletes with a disability decided they wanted to continue playing hockey. The Swedes took two regular ice hockey skates and built a metal frame - a sledge - to fit on top, with enough room for the puck to pass underneath. Using the non-blade end of short sticks to propel themselves along the ice, the men played the first ice sledge hockey match outdoors on a lake south of Stockholm. By 1969, Stockholm had a five-team ice sledge hockey league.
Ice sledge hockey debuted at the 1994 Paralympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, and medals have been awarded since its inclusion to the Paralympic Games.
Sledge hockey players must sit themselves atop the sledge, propelling themselves around with two shortened hockey sticks that have picks on the butt-end to grip the ice. The other end has a curved end to be used as the stick for shooting and passing. There are six players per team on the ice, and 15 team members make up the sledge hockey team. Normally, there are two goaltenders included in the 15 players, along with nine forwards and four defensemen. A regular game consists of three 15-minute periods.
The sledge hockey event kicks off on March 13, and Canada has the opening game against Italy at 10:00am at UBC Thunderbird Arena in Vancouver. Eight teams qualified for the 2010 Paralympic Games in sledge hockey. The countries represented will be Canada, Italy, Norway, Sweden, USA, South Korea, Japan, and the Czech Republic.
Of those teams, Canada, USA, Norway, and Sweden are considered the powerhouses of sledge hockey. Canada is the defending Paralympic champion, but the USA captured the gold medal on home soil in Salt Lake City in 2002 while Norway earned the gold medal in Nagano in 1998 and Sweden earned gold in Lillehammer in 1994. Norway is the only country to have medalled at all four Paralympic Games, picking up three silver medals to go along with their gold medal in 1998. Outside of these four countries, no other country has earned a medal of any colour, showing how dominant these four countries have been.
While there is no doubt that some of the other countries are making strides to catch the top-four countries, I'm not sure if they have made up enough ground to capture a medal. My darkhorse for a medal would be Japan as they play a very skilled game, but they just don't play physical enough to knock off one of the top teams.
I'll be posting recaps of games when I can, but you can rest assured that I'll be tuning into the game whenever possible. Sledge hockey is fast, exciting, and physical. While the game may look a little different, the gameplay is no different. There are even skirmishes that break out between the players, similar to what you see in regular hockey!
If Canada and the USA square off for gold at the Paralympic Games, it could be a sweep for Hockey Canada over our rivals to the south. It all starts on Saturday! Check the schedule here, and tune in if you can. I guarantee you'll be amazed at how good this game is, and how athletic these men are!
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!