Trail makes great impression on sledge hockey hopefuls

The national sledge hockey camp left an indelible impression on many Trail residents as it wrapped up on Saturday with a tribute dinner.

The national sledge hockey camp left an indelible impression on many Trail residents as it wrapped up on Saturday with a final day of workouts followed by a tribute dinner at the Colombo Lodge.

Thanks to organizers like Eleanor Gattafoni-Robinson and others, the players were thrilled that the City of Trail and the Colombo Lodge honoured them with a banquet, said coach Mike Mondin.

“The players thoroughly enjoyed the evening. All members of the team commented on the warm hospitality of the people of Trail and were impressed how friendly everyone was.”

At the September selection camp in Barrie, Ont., 32 skaters were pared down to a manageable 20 for the week-long camp in Trail. Coach Mike Mondin and staff will have to make the difficult final cuts as it prepares for the Challenge Cup in Calgary Dec. 2-8.

“The coaching staff is in the last stage of making its final selections,” said Mondin.

“It is a detailed process and the players will be contacted early this week regarding their status. It’s exciting to tell a player he has made the team whether he is a veteran or a rookie, but it is very difficult to release a player for any coaching staff.

“It is even tougher to release a sledge hockey player because they are inspiring individuals first and dedicated athletes second.”

Team Canada relies heavily on veteran players like captain Adam Westlake, Brad Bowden, and senior member and 15-year veteran Billy Bridges, but recent rookie recruits also play a vital role in its continued development.

“For our team to be successful each player needs to understand and fulfill their role like any other player in hockey. Several of our veteran players have been very successful winning gold medals and world championships. As new players are selected, veteran players accept the responsibility to show them what it takes in all aspects of their preparation and performance,” added Mondin.

Sledge hockey has come a long way in a relatively short time, and Bridges, a member of the team since 1997, has seen it evolve first hand.

“I’m lucky enough to have been here before Hockey Canada and all that support,” said Bridges. “I knew what it felt like to be fund raising, and running around Guelph selling my time, so we as a team could travel.”

Hockey Canada took the sledge hockey program under its wing in 2004, and Canada won its first Paralympic gold medal at the Games in Turin, Italy in 2006 and a World Championship gold in 2008. But it was the Vancouver Paralympic Games in 2010 that really propelled the program’s profile in Canada.

“It’s grown huge, we have guys trying out for our team now who wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for those Games and the publicity, we’re drawing a great crowd now, we have two guys on the team that played junior, it’s awesome,” said Bridges.

Ironically, the Vancouver Games was a defining moment for a player like rookie Josh MacDonald who wasn’t on the team then or had even tried sledge hockey at that time.

About 10-years ago, MacDonald suffered a traumatic spinal chord injury.While working on his truck, the jacks failed and it came down on top of him fracturing his lumbar vertebrate.

He struggled with his disability going through phases ranging from denial to anger and frustration.

“I just wanted to get a semblance of my old life back, so I said no I’m not playing that (sledge hockey). But then I went to the 2010 Olympics – watched it, was shocked by the level of competition, the physicality, the talent.”

MacDonald also looked through the team’s profile book and saw athletes who had suffered similar injuries, but went on to excel at the sport. He started going out with his local sledge-hockey club the Surrey Eagles, and joined the national development camp last year, and now, three years since first strapping on a sledge, is at the national team camp.

“Hockey really has been the big catalyst to kind of snap me back out of it,” said MacDonald. “The power of sport has been incredible. It gets my self-esteem back up, the determination and drive. The physical fitness that’s required for this is another big thing . . . It’s been really transformative.”

The rookie 34 year old, has also received support from veterans like the 28-year-old Bridges both on and off the ice. Helping develop his skills as well as learning to be an ambassador of the game, has been an essential part of the sledge hockey experience.

With final cuts imminent, and a large core of veterans, MacDonald knows he may be on the bubble, but regardless of the outcome he is happy with being a part of the process.

“I would love to make this team, that’s what the last two years of hard work have been all about, if I can’t, one thing I get to pull from this is all this experience . . . The progression of how the side effects or trickle down effects of this has affected the rest of my life is pretty amazing.”