Canada faces U.S. in crucial game at World Sledge Hockey Challenge
National team hopes to inspire others to take up fast-growing sport with Bridgewater tournament
Team Canada is off to a hot start at the World Sledge Hockey Challenge in Bridgewater, N.S., this week.
The team has two wins and no losses — and tonight they face the tournament's other perfect squad, Team U.S.A.
"Any time we get a chance to play the U.S.A., it's always a good battle. They're obviously reigning Olympics champions and reigning world champions, so we have a lot of work to do," says Billy Bridges, who plays centre for Team Canada.
He joined the national team 18 years ago and has wracked up the medals: three world golds and one Olympic gold.
He's almost caught up to his wife.
"I don't have near as many as my wife does," he says. "She has two Olympic golds and I think seven world championships. She has a lot more rings in the cupboard than I do."
Sami Jo Small played goalie for Canada's national women's hockey team. The couple are raising their first child, Kensie, who was born in November.
"She's named after Kensington, the town I come from in P.E.I.," Bridges says.
As absorbing as being a new dad is, that all vanishes when he hits the ice.
"Nothing really changes in my head when it comes to the game. As soon as I put on the jersey and drop the puck, it just snaps into my head and I'm back to game time."
Hockey Nova Scotia hopes to grow sledge hockey
Sledge hockey is pretty much the same game as stand-up hockey, only players ride sleds and use short hockey sticks to propel themselves with their arms.
People in the rink speak in awed tones about Bridges's one-armed 80 mile-an-hour slapshot. Oh, and he does it with a two-foot stick.
He scored against Russia to help Canada get its first win.
Bridges has seen the sport grow tremendously since he started in the 1990s.
"When I first started we'd have teams of one disabled kid and 15 of his able-bodied brothers and friends and family. Now we have almost 100 teams in Canada," he says.
That includes people like teammate Tyler McGregor. He played AAA hockey in Ontario until he lost his right leg and switched to sledge hockey. The 21-year-old has played a key role in Canada's wins this week at Bridgewater's Lunenburg Country Lifestyle Centre.
Darrren Cossar, executive director of Hockey Nova Scotia, hopes the on-ice action inspires others to take up the sport.
"Not only is it for individuals with disabilities, but able-bodied participants can play as well because once you're in the sled, everybody is on equal footing," he says.
He praised Bridgewater for putting on an amazing week for the players. When the U.S. played Russia, local fans were thin on the ground, so a local school sent enthusiastic young students and split them into groups cheering for either side.
"The results that are here are just fantastic."
Hockey Nova Scotia is keen to develop sledge hockey across the province. It has four programs now and plans to grow to six next year.
The Cape Breton Sledgehammers
Kurtis Deveaux helped bring the sport to Cape Breton. Six years ago he participated in a demonstration and the next day he and his family bought sledges.
"I think that first ice time, we had about five or six [players]," he says. "We have about 18 members of our team right now. It's grown immensely."
The Cape Breton Sledgehammers scrimmage regularly and often play teams in P.E.I. and Halifax. Deveaux travelled to Bridgewater to watch the world challenge and has become a full-time rink rat.
"It's amazing. We go out there and we play the game, but you get a chance to watch them and it's just a totally different level. It's amazing to see how much talent these guys have and how good you can possibly get at this sport," the Glace Bay man says.
He hopes more Nova Scotians will start teams and build up the community interest. "Coming out to watch us play is a big thing too. We may have a disability, but we're athletes just like anyone else."
He said once he's in the sledge "it's so freeing you almost forget you have a disability."
Canada plays the U.S. tonight at 7 p.m. A win would likely secure them a spot in Saturday's gold medal game.
The squad also has its eyes on the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.