International sledge hockey teams reunite in London, Ont. for tournament

The Durham Steelhawks squared off against the Elmvale Bears Sunday at the Western Fair Sports Centre.  (Angela McInnes/CBC - image credit)
The Durham Steelhawks squared off against the Elmvale Bears Sunday at the Western Fair Sports Centre. (Angela McInnes/CBC - image credit)

More than 30 teams from as far as the United Kingdom were in London,Ont., over the weekend to compete in a tournament hosted by the London Blizzard Sledge Hockey Club.

The annual event, held at the Western Fair Sports Centre, had been on a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, said organizer Todd Sargeant. It's one of the largest of its kind to take place in the world, he added, where disabled and able-bodied athletes alike have gathered to compete for 17 years.  

"It's really nice to have everybody here," said Sargeant. "One of the nice things for these guys is they see each other once a year at this tournament and even though they're on other teams, there's a smile, there's a high-five recognizing that everybody made it back again."

Sledge hockey was adapted from the stand-up version in the 1960's in Scandinavia as a form of recreational therapy for people with physical disabilities. Instead of wearing skates, the player sits in a bladed sled. They manoeuvre by using two shorter spiked hockey sticks to push along the ice.

Angela McInnes/CBC
Angela McInnes/CBC

Beyond that, the rules to sledge hockey are the same, including those involving contact. Its popularity has and continues to spread, said Sargeant.

"It's just continued to grow country to country, community to community, and we get more and more athletes," he said. "With a tournament like this, you see we get more and more serious."

Angela McInnes/CBC
Angela McInnes/CBC

Sarah Hope has been serious about the game for the past 18 months, as part of the Great Britain Women's Para Ice team. She acquired her disability in 2009 and played wheelchair basketball for the U.K. for five years before retiring. Looking for a new sport, sledge hockey filled the gap.

"I'm used to being on six wheels, so being on two blades is a bit of a challenge," said Hope.

"But it's great fun because I think a lot of the girls are in a similar situation…some of the girls have been playing sledge for a few years, but a lot of us are quite new to it, so we're all learning together. It's really nice."

Angela McInnes/CBC
Angela McInnes/CBC

Chris Perry still gets exhilarated right before he's about to hit the ice, even after playing for eight years. He got his start in the sport after a devastating workplace accident left him completely paraplegic. Sledge hockey, he said, helped in his rehabilitation both physically and socially.

"Getting into the sport really helped me kind of get out there and sort of build my strength up," said Perry. "When I first started I was, you know, really not a very good player. I was learning how to use my core again. Now I'm in my eighth year and I've scored three goals this tournament, so I'm one of the top players on my team."

Perry is currently assistant captain for the London Blizzards. The team played a tough weekend against some stiff competition from the U.S, but he said he's far from discouraged and has no plans of slowing down.

"I'll keep playing," he said. "As long as there's a place to play, I'll be there."

Canada's National Para Hockey team earned a silver medal at the 2022 Para Hockey Cup in November, losing 5-1 to the U.S.