FROM HOCKEY CANADA: GROWING THE GAME, EAST COAST STYLE
Jan. 18, 2016
Growing the game, East Coast style
Sledge hockey continues to grow across Canada, nowhere more so than Nova Scotia
By David Brien (Hockey Canada)
But how many can name a sledge hockey player? How many know Westlake, or Bridges, or Bowden?
Likely not many, and Hockey Nova Scotia is doing its part to change that.
For the past decade, the Maritime province has launched a handful of sledge hockey programs in an effort to not only grow the sport locally, but to improve its popularity across the nation and make sure players interested in the game can easily access it.
Despite representing fewer than three per cent of Canada’s total population, Nova Scotia has established itself as a leader in the game, putting down sledge hockey roots that have extended across the country.
Whether you come from Cape Breton, the Acadia region, Dartmouth or Halifax, Lunenburg County or the South Shore, or you’re part of the Easter Seals, there is a sledge hockey program waiting for you.
And according to Darren Cossar, executive director of Hockey Nova Scotia, there’s one big reason why.
“Nicole Durand,” he says without hesitation. “I’ll tell you straight up, it was all about her. She’s an amazing person. She showed up in my office one day in her wheelchair – she has spina bifida – and looked at me and said she wanted to play hockey. She said she was tired of going to the rink to watch her brother and not be able to play.”
Durand’s interest in sledge hockey began more than 10 years ago, when Paralympic gold medallist Billy Bridges held a demonstration of the sport in Nova Scotia. She was there and instantly fell in love.
“I was [my brother’s] biggest fan and I loved the game so much,” she says. “So when I tried out sledge that summer, I thought ‘this is my hockey, and we need to have a team for all the other people with disabilities who want to play this sport.’”
After Cossar got Durand to speak in front of the Hockey Nova Scotia Board of Directors at their annual meeting, support and funding from different branch representatives got the ball rolling to put sledge hockey programs in place. The province has been contributing to them annually ever since.
Durand and her family have been instrumental in the grassroots development of sledge hockey in Nova Scotia and have helped with getting grants for sleds. Not only has that motivated Cossar to stay involved, but it has benefitted the branch in unexpected ways.
The sport is much more inclusive then it has ever been. Not only do the five programs across the province include players that range in age from five to late 60s, it also has players that are able-bodied, and is open to both men and women.
And there’s the social aspect; not only does playing the sport keep the players in shape, the programs are a way to enjoy quality time with family and friends.
“Just seeing the difference in some of my teammates is what I’m most proud of,” says Durand of the self-confidence boost she feels the sport has brought its newest players. “To have a sport and a team to call their own is truly special to most of them. It’s a great feeling.”
While some grants have permitted different arenas to have sleds on hand for public skating or school activities, there are still challenges – the cost of ice time and equipment are still preventing sledge hockey from growing at an even greater rate across Nova Scotia.
Despite the programs in place, the number of participants is low compared to minor hockey, making the ice time too costly to divide among the players who’d enjoy more frequent practices. And then there’s the issue of connecting with specific groups.
“We’ve found out that we’ve done a very good job with groups and individuals who were born with disabilities,” says Cossar. “But we’re having a hard time having as great an impact on individuals who have been faced with life experiences or illness that have led to them being disabled at some level. It’s all about awareness and we’re constantly looking to work on that.”
Both Cossar and Durand agree that sledge hockey is trending upwards in terms of exposure, accessibility and awareness, but progress can still be made. And with Bridgewater, N.S., hosting the 2016 World Sledge Hockey Challenge, the national and international exposure will only help.
“With all my time spent in the sport, I’ve noticed that the big thing is that you don’t get a full appreciation for the game until you see the athletes that’ll be there for the event,” says Cossar. “With the speed, the physicality and the skills that they bring … it’s something you really appreciate when you get to see it live.”
As for Durand, there’s still one specific goal – a Nova Scotian in Team Canada colours.
“Our programs are still fairly new compared to some of the other provinces,” she says, “but we’re definitely looking forward to seeing one of our members joining the national team.”
If the game continues to grow as it has, she might not have to wait too much longer.