Sledge hockey is slowly but surely gaining in popularity as it prepares to take its biggest stage in Sochi at the 2014 Paralympic Games.
BY CURTIS NG
Sledge hockey and stand-up hockey aren’t all that different. A few equipment changes here, a rule change there. And Canada and the United States is still the game’s big rivalry. But where the sports really differ, not surprisingly, is in how they are covered by the media.
At the 2012 London Paralympics, Canada’s Rogers-Bell consortium provided 52 hours of coverage for Paralympic sports, while the 11-day event received around 400 hours of coverage from the BBC in Britain. In the U.S., NBC had just four hour-long highlight shows and a 90-minute recap of the Games for a total of five hours and 30 minutes.
For the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, a group led by the Canadian Paralympic Committee will provide more than 65 hours of television coverage and up to 350 hours of online streaming for Paralympic sports, including sledge hockey. NBC is catching up as well, having partnered with the U.S. Olympic Committee to acquire the U.S. media rights for the 2014 and 2016 Paralympic Games. They’ll be showing 50 hours from Sochi and 66 hours from Rio de Janeiro in addition to streaming events on the web.
“All I care about is that (Paralympics) coverage keeps going up and up,” said Greg Westlake, captain of the Canadian sledge hockey team. “As long as the next Games is progressive and not regressing, that’s the most important thing for me.”
Added coach Mike Mondin: “Any coverage that helps support these athletes and exposes our sport and the Paralympic movement is really important. Anything to help that is just absolutely beautiful.”
The biggest difference in sledge hockey – or sled hockey, as it’s called in the U.S. – is the equipment. Players ride highly maneuverable sledges fitted with blades and use two short sticks for puckhandling and pushing off, ski pole-style. The bench area is at ice level for easy access, while the boards at the bench are transparent so waiting players can watch the action. Most of the rules are the same, with a few stick- and sledge-related penalties added in. Teeing, for instance, is a penalty assessed for charging an opponent with the front part of the sledge.
Sledge hockey is gaining popularity as media coverage increases. Countries outside North America are developing competitive programs as well. “It’s moving toward hockey countries becoming better at sledge hockey,” Westlake said. “Russia, the U.S. and Canada were the top three last year at the world championship. There are a lot of teams that are up-and-coming...Czech Republic’s good, Korea’s good. We show up and our goal is to get to that gold medal game and then we’ll go from there.”