Manitoba

'It's amazing': Manitobans hit the ice with the country's top female sledge hockey players

When 11-year-old Lily Ruthrich gets out of her wheelchair and straps on her sledge she feels freedom. She slid across the ice at the MTS Iceplex in Winnipeg on Saturday and expertly navigated the puck while taking in lessons from Canada’s top women sledge hockey players.

Lily Ruthrich, 11, says playing sledge hockey makes her feel free

Players and coaches from the women's national sledge hockey team are partnering with local players in Winnipeg over the weekend. 1:26

When 11-year-old Lily Ruthrich gets out of her wheelchair and straps on her sledge she feels freedom.

She slid across the ice at the MTS Iceplex in Winnipeg on Saturday and expertly navigated the puck while taking in lessons from Canada's top women sledge hockey players.

"I remember when I was little and I saw people playing soccer on TV, playing football on TV — because my family is a very athletic family — and I'm, like, 'I want to do that,'" Ruthrich said.  

"Now that I have sledge hockey, it's a chance for me to be the next Dustin Byfuglien."

Lily Ruthrich, 11, took to the ice to play with the country's top sledge hockey players on Saturday. (Radja Mahamba/CBC)
Players and coaches from the women's national sledge hockey team are partnering with local players in Winnipeg over the weekend. The locals spent the morning practicing with the Canadian team, before the national team's matches against the provincial team Saturday at 4 p.m. and Sunday at 10:30 a.m.

"It's amazing. They are the most awesome kick-butt women that get to this for a living. They make awesome friendships and they get to have a real camaraderie with each other," Ruthrich said.

"To experience that is really nice."

'You see passion, you see drive'

Sledge hockey was invented in the early 1960s in Sweden and is one of the most popular sports in the Winter Paralympic Games. Essentially, all of the regular ice hockey rules apply in sledge hockey but the players sit on a sledge and use special sticks.

The sticks are curved like a regular hockey stick, but usually have metal teeth at the end of the blade so the players can push themselves around the ice.

Sledge hockey was invented in the 1960s. (Radja Mahamba/CBC)
Organized sledge hockey started in Manitoba in 2007 and has been quickly growing, said Bill Muloin, who works with the Society for Manitobans with Disabilities and operates the provincial sledge hockey program.

"You can still play hockey but you are going to play it in a different way. But it's still a game and it's still one of the things that we love here in Canada," he said.

"You see passion, you see drive. You see individuals who are committed."

Many of the players are from Winnipeg but a lot travel from around the province to play the sport they love, he said.

However, there are challenges to growing the sport, including accessibility at rinks for players in wheelchairs and competing for ice time with minor hockey. The cost of equipment is also an issue, Muloin said.

'I just fell in love with it'

Christina Pickton slid across the ice on Saturday, giving the Manitoba players advice and support. She has been playing for the women's national sledge hockey team for five years.

"It's really exciting to see that there is talent here and that we have more women that we can teach and grow for our program in future years. It's really, really exciting," she said.

Members of the Canadian women’s sledge hockey team get ready to take the ice. (Radja Mahamba/CBC)
Pickton, who is from Niagara Falls, Ont., relates to the young Manitoba players. She has a prosthetic leg and growing up, she was used to being the slowest kid in class and on the playground.

"So when I got out on the ice and I was skating and actually being fast and agile, I think that's what got me hooked is the speed of the game," she said.

"I just fell in love with it. I just feel so honoured to be representing Canada playing a sport that I just love so, so much."

She added she hopes the practice the younger players got Saturday "has maybe lit a fire in them to train and practice and maybe be at our try-outs next year" for the Canadian national team.