Saturday, 10 March 2018

Don't Focus On The Score

The ice hockey competition at the 2018 PyeongChang Paralympics began yesterday as Canada and Sweden met in their first games, and it went very well for one team and very not-well for the other. Canada blitzed the Swedes 17-0 this morning on this side of the world, and everyone gasped at the gap between the two countries both on the scoreboard and the skill on the ice. Admittedly, the Swedes were outplayed entirely, but there was an excellent article published by the CBC's Devin Heroux today that should be acknowledged. This score, this game, and this tournament was not the result of Canada being that much better. No, it was about a process that has seen this Canadian squad consistently improve in all areas of the game.

I can't take any credit for Mr. Heroux's article other than reading it and linking it above, but I can say that having spoken to Billy Bridges it is apparent that this Canadian team was designed to be top-to-bottom stronger than any Canadian squad before it. It's not about building an all-star team, although these men are definitely the best of the best of the best this country has to offer. Instead, it was about building the best team this country has ever seen.

The 17 goals scored today ties the second-highest total that the Canadian sledge team ever scored since Hockey Canada incorporated the sport into its organization in 2004. Unfortunately for Sweden, it's happened twice to them - this year at these Paralympics and against Sweden last spring at the World Para Hockey Championship. The most that Canada has ever scored, though, is 18 goals against Japan in 2010.

Again, I must stress that the score isn't what we should be focused on due to the fact that this team is far different than teams of the past. A scan of the scoring shows names like Tyler MacGregor, Adam Dixon, and Greg Westlake - names we're used to seeing - but it also shows Liam Hickey with a pair of goals, Rob Armstrong with a pair, Ben Delaney, and Bryan Sholomicki - names that are new to the program. They're deeper, they're faster, and they're just as hungry for gold, but it's a new philosophy that is driving this team.

Head coach Ken Babey instituted a new rule when he took over the program in 2015. As Mr. Heroux writes, "At any given moment during Canada's practices, Babey blows his whistle — wherever the players are on the ice, they have to race in around him. The last one in has to do a lap. The rest of the team cheers wildly as the player whips around the ice, banging their sticks. The idea is that no one player is left behind." It's that philosophy that has brought these men together better than ever before.

"You never like to talk about previous teams in a negative way but this group seems to be special. There just seems to be something about these guys," captain Greg Westlake told Heroux.

"It's the first time I think I've seen a team be carried by a plan and 15 guys all going the same direction," Billy Bridges added. "In the past maybe we didn't know what sacrifices needed to be made."

That's exactly the sentiment I got from Billy when he was in Winnipeg over Christmas as he was texting me from the gym at the University of Manitoba. He explained that it was part of what was expected if the team was to medal in PyeongChang after finishing fourth in Vancouver in 2010 and third in Sochi in 2014. He didn't seem to mind - he still had all afternoon to hang out with family and have fun - but the early morning workout on a day when most of us were prepping for celebration was part of the sacrifice he was speaking about when talking to Mr. Heroux. For the record, it should be noted that Bridges, Sami Jo Small, and daughter Kensie had a lovely Christmas with family.

The Canadian team is about brotherhood and going the extra mile for the other 16 guys wearing the maple leaf. Liam Hickey, who scored two goals, made his sledge debut at the Paralympic Sledge Hockey event today. James Dunn is just 17 year-old and is skating alongside veterans Bridges and Westlake. Bryan Sholomicki is 37 and appearing in his first Olympiad for Canada.

Westlake, appearing in his second Paralympic Games, knows the importance of the philosophy introduced by Ken Babey.

"I want to win a gold medal because we have 15 guys on this roster that don't have a gold medal," Westlake told Heroux.

The work and effort these men have put in over the last three years in preparing for this tournament showed fruit yesterday in the thrashing against Sweden, but that's just one game. They will play Italy tomorrow, and Norway on Monday before preparing for the semi-finals on Thursday. Canada shouldn't have too much trouble with either Italy or Norway, but a battle with the Americans in the gold medal game is what they're seeking.

If they continue to play a complete team game as they did today against Sweden with contributions from all players, their return to the top of the podium may be seen on Sunday.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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