Read more about Mellissa Fung's experience meeting the Canadian National Amputee Hockey Team
It’s a scene that plays out every weekend – somewhere in the country. Hockey players, trudging through the snow with their bulging bags, full of anticipation as they arrive for training camp.
But there’s something special happening in this rink, this January weekend, on the base of CFB Valcartier – about half an hour north of Quebec City.
The Canadian National Amputee Hockey Team is holding a special weekend camp for wounded soldiers.
Inside the rink, Veronique Cote, the base’s rehabilitation specialist, is talking to some of the soldiers who will be taking part. Not all have decided to skate. Sgt. Patrick Bedard tells us he doesn’t think he’s ready. He’s just here to watch for now.
Captain Blaise Lapointe, though, can’t wait to get started. He’s been walking on a prosthetic since November 2009, two months after he stepped on a landmine while on foot patrol in southern Afghanistan. He started thinking about skating a few months later, but wasn’t sure he was ready. Then he heard about the Canadian amputee team playing a tournament in Montreal and drove down from Kingston, where he’s currently living, to watch them.
"That was very encouraging," he told us. "I asked them for a few pointers on adjusting the prosthetics and how to go about it and that was a great help. And I’m very happy to be back with them and learn a bit more."
On the ice, it’s hard to tell Lapointe is skating on a prosthetic. He’s fast on the drills, back and forth between the hash marks in the circle, stopping on a dime with a spray of ice. Skating with him is Cpl. Mike Barnewall. He lost the lower part of his right leg in 2006, while he on security detail for an engineer patrol. He knew almost immediately he had lost his foot when he was trying to crawl to safety.
"When I was crawling, I could push off with my left, but I couldn’t push off with my right. Like, when I went to push off, nothing was happening. So I knew there was significant damage there."
Back home in Canada, he says he didn’t have a hard time getting used to the prosthetic. But when it came to playing the game he’s played all his life, he approached it with more than a little trepidation.
"I tried early on," he said. "I tried to put a regular skate on – it was awkward, it was clunky, it was bottom-heavy, it just didn’t feel right so I continued to put it off, and when I got back home in Windsor, I started to get more serious about the idea."
He had a prosthetic made specifically for skating – with a blade as the foot. He started on his own, then connected with the National Amputee Team. This is his first workout with them, and already, he can feel an improvement.
"I can tell, from the time that I first stepped on the ice with them, I know that I’ve improved. I’m skating better."
It’s like learning how to skate all over again, and it can be months, even years, before it feels just right. The prosthetic has to be angled differently for skating than for walking – and even the slightest turn of an allen key can make a huge difference.
Tom Rinn is a forward on the National Amputee Team – he lost his leg at the age of five, and he’s giving the soldiers tips on their skating. Quick turnarounds – going backwards and forwards – are especially difficult with a prosthetic.
He says the soldiers are doing great, and he’s thankful for the chance to work with them.
"It’s just a very humbling experience," he says. "These guys obviously do so much for us and we owe them so much that for us to be able to come here and be able to skate with them and be on the ice with them – it’s very special."
For the soldiers, being able to skate and to get back to a good level of play is just another step in what’s been a long journey of recovery.
"It’s very important," says Blaise Lapointe, sweat still dripping off his brow after a scrimmage. "It helps me to know that I can bring the kids skating and that I can go out with the boys and play some hockey and just carry on with life, you know? Soldier on. That’s what it’s all about."