Ok, it hasn’t come quite that far. But I dare anyone to try to find a sledge hockey photo on the internet that is more than 10 years old. Go ahead; I’ll sit here and wait for an hour while you try. (Google will not help you.)
I suppose that’s to my point. Sledge hockey evolved overnight. I’ve read that it’s origins date back to 1961, but if you could travel back just 20 years, you’d find kids like me poking the puck around the ice with the butt end of our sticks. My brother Mike still brags about the season he boasted a goals against average of 0.0. Impressive until I remind him that we had no way of raising the puck unless we picked it up and threw it at him. When we did finally get blades on our sticks, there was such an outcry that it hardly seemed worth it. If I wanted to get scolded, I could stay home and break windows playing ball hockey in our basement.
So I turned to basketball and never looked back. When I returned to sledge hockey 3 years ago, I was blown away. Especially when I got on the ice with Billy and Brad (ie. Bridges and Bowden). I had talent, they had talent plus skill. No contest. They toyed with me. And I realized that the entry barrier to playing sledge hockey at the truly elite level is higher than I imagined.
Can it go higher? If I were a pessimist I’d say no; it’s might be maxed out. By design the sport is so challenging from a balance/coordination standpoint that I’d suggest we temper our expectations of how much better the sport can be played at an individual level. If I were an optimist, I’d point to my second paragraph and say give it time, especially if the depth of field grows in the wake of the Games. Fortunately, I’m neither a pessimist nor an optimist, so I’ll just admit that I don’t know.
Whether the game continues to grow or levels off depends on how much emphasis is placed on basic skill development. You can’t play hockey as a team if you have trouble receiving a pass or handling the puck. You can only build a great team on a strong foundation. When I read this or that article (from the Vancouver Sun), it makes me wonder where the emphasis in Canadian sledge hockey lies. Yes, hockey is a physical game. But no one watches hockey merely for the hits and fights (I doubt). Hitting adds pressure and takes away time, so in the long run, probably serves skill development well by demanding a higher degree of concentration, anticipation, and quicker decision making. Fighting offers a means of self-policing, for better or worse. Hitting and fighting both add or take something away from the game, depending on your point of view. But they are ancillary. Peripheral. Sports fans respect hockey first and foremost for the great plays, passes, goals, and saves. Get that right, and you’re off to the races.
In any case, I really appreciate how far the sport has come. And even though the Canadians didn’t medal, they can be proud of the part they’ve played in sledge hockey’s rapid evolution. They may not be able to call themselves medalists, but they can call themselves pioneers, which isn’t a bad consolation.
I’ll wrap up with three offerings to the Winter Paralympics Suggestion Box (which I looked for but couldn’t find anywhere…)
1 – Able bodied sweepers for wheelchair curling. Why not? I can’t think of one reason why this wouldn’t be good for the sport. And you could implement it overnight.
2 – Short track speed skating. Sledge hockey without the hockey. One of the most exciting spectator sports at the Olympics would be spectacular at the Paralympics.
3 – Mono-ski cross. I was surprised to find out that this exists already – it’s been in the xGames since 2005 (watch this video! – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chd1jbZ-Vms). The Paralympics could use at least one more event that makes spectators say, “That person must be completely crazy”. Right now it’s just the downhill, and only when the skiers are really going for it. This could be good.
See you in London 2012. (Did I just say that out loud?)