Winger-turned-goalie Dominic Larocque always up for challenge
Afghanistan War veteran made transition after Sochi bronze
The beaver on goaltender Dominic Larocque's mask has meaning beyond the fact that it's Canada's national animal. For the Afghanistan War veteran, it's an homage to his time as a corporal in the Royale 22e Régiment.
"We had a beaver as our logo," Larocque says about the regiment colloquially referred to as the Van Doos.
"My military service, it's one of the reasons why now I'm playing sledge hockey."
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Four years after attending the the 2010 Paralympics in Vancouver as a spectator with the Soldier On program, Larocque was on Canada's bronze-winning Paralympic team in Sochi — as a forward. After those Games, he decided to make a change following the retirement of 2014 starter Benoit St-Amand.
"I just saw an opportunity to jump in and try to do what I dreamed of since I was a kid," Larocque, now 30, says. "I just brought the goalie equipment and the guys were surprised by that, just didn't really understand why."
Larocque says he worked tirelessly that summer ahead of selection camp to prove to himself and his teammates that he'd be ready for this challenge. He's more than delivered, according to coach Ken Babey.
"I've never seen that in hockey, and it's an amazing example of a guy that's got athletic skill to do that, but also the determination and courage to switch over like that," Babey says.
"His transition from where he was when I started here [in January 2015] to where he is now and winning a gold medal [at the 2017 world championships last April] as a starting goaltender and only giving up one goal against the Americans, he's shown that he's a true world-class goalie, and what a great story that is."
Larocque's story might not have been possible without Soldier On, a Canadian Armed Forces program that supports veterans an active service members overcome physical injuries and deal with mental health challenges through sports.
The Quebec City native had his left leg amputated above the knee in 2007 after the vehicle he was in rolled over an improvised explosive device in the Panjwai district in Afghanistan. Following his rehabilitation, Larocque discovered the sport in late 2009, attended the Games in Vancouver with the program and joined the national team in September of 2010.
"I never even knew about sledge hockey when I got injured so when I realized I could actually play hockey again I was very excited," Larocque told CBC Sports' Jamie Strashin.
Para ice hockey — the official name of the sport — was also featured in the lead-up to the outdoor game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Members of the Soldier On para ice hockey team played their American counterparts, with the USA Warriors winning 8-5.
"We're not just a team, we're a family."<br><br>Wounded veterans took to the ice on Friday as part of the NHL Sled Series at <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/StadiumSeries?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#StadiumSeries</a>. <a href="https://t.co/CA8DzOyfWU">pic.twitter.com/CA8DzOyfWU</a>—@NHL
Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen's mask for the Stadium Series showdown included the Soldier On logo, while Larocque's has a camouflage pattern to go along with his regimental beaver.
"It is never too late to start moving and Soldier On will be there to help you do it," Larocque wrote in a testimonial for the program. He's the first athlete from Soldier On to become a Winter Paralympian; Steve Daniel, a retired sergeant, competed in adaptive rowing at the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Beijing.
Building on a big win
That gold medal from the 2017 worlds imbued Larocque and his comrades with confidence, something they hope to carry into the Games despite a loss in the World Sledge Hockey Challenge final to their archrivals.
"I think [the world championships] was a key moment for us," Larocque says. "Now we know we are ready, but we still have to improve because we know that the U.S. will still improve too."
Larocque isn't resting on his laurels within the team either, knowing that Corbin Watson is more than capable between the pipes.
"I think those two guys, they go at it now too for who's going to be the No. 1 goaltender," Babey says. "We're very fortunate to have two good goalies in our lineup, and as a coach it's beautiful."
"I think [Larocque's] only going to get better."
With files from The Canadian Press