Canada's para ice hockey team hungry to reclaim supremacy
Head coach Ken Babey has his team believing gold within reach
Everything about Canada's para ice hockey team centres on being a good teammate. It's the little things, according to coach Ken Babey.
Since he took over as bench boss in 2015, the Saskatoon native has done something he believes brings a team closer together.
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.
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"It's just a way as a coach to keep them alert. I've been doing it for years," Babey said. "The veteran guys are keeping a pretty close eye on me and sometimes they jump the gun a bit."
He's the most successful coach in Canadian post-secondary hockey history, with 534 regular-season wins over 27 years as head coach at SAIT. Babey used to do the same thing with all those past teams.
He wants this team fast, relentless and to send a message they're at the Paralympics to win gold.
The coach got exactly what he wanted in the first game Saturday against Sweden. The team came out onto the ice as if they had been shot out of a cannon, mounting a 5-0 lead before most of the fans had settled into their seats.
By the time the final horn sounded, the Canadian had put 17 pucks into the net, winning 17-0 and powered assistant captain Tyler McGregor's four goals. They outshot Sweden 45-2.
"I believe we're going to win here," Canadian icon Greg Westlake said. "I don't know any other way to think and that's how I'm going to keep thinking until I'm done hockey."
Westlake is in his fourth Paralympics for Canada. He's the captain this year.
In his first Games appearance in 2006, he was part of a gold-medal winning team. Westlake thought that was the way it was going to go for the rest of his career — winning gold.
Then 2010 happened. The team placed fourth in Vancouver. Four years later the team placed third in Sochi. It's been a long climb back to this point but Westlake feels something magical happening with this team.
"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," he said.
Veteran Billy Bridges, who is in his fifth Games agrees with the captain. He's shared both the thrill of victory and agony of defeat. But Bridges said he also has a good understanding of what went right when they won gold and what went wrong when they didn't.
"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," Bridges said. "In the past maybe we didn't know what sacrifices needed to be made."
The responsibility of the Maple Leaf
Despite the past two Paralympics being somewhat below the expectations set out by many on the team and program, Canada knows the pressure they're facing when it comes to wearing the Maple Leaf in Pyeongchang.
It's always a gold or bust mentality when it comes to Canada and hockey.
"I think the guys relish it. I think it's part of being Canadian and being a Canadian hockey player," Babey said. "Every time you put on a Canadian jersey in hockey I think it's your responsibility to always give your best."
They're not shying away from it. All signs point to Canada meeting the USA in the gold-medal game. The team knows there's a lot of hockey left but they're as hungry and focused as they've ever been.
"I want to win a gold medal because we have 15 guys on this roster that don't have a gold medal," Westlake said.