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Throwback Thursday – Women’s Para Ice Hockey

October 25, 2018

Flashback to earlier this year and I somehow stumbled into the world of sledge hockey, aka. these days as Para Ice Hockey. Jarno Silvonen (from Turku) has been involved in the sport for a long time as a coach and it is through him I was introduced to the sport. He has taken on the Finnish national junior team (to my understanding) and is working on Finland’s next generation of winter Para athletes.

* I will refer to sledge hockey most of the time in this entry, but sledge hockey = Para Ice Hockey

But you know me, I am all about women in sport, so I was super pumped when I was invited to take part in the inaugural Women’s Para Ice Hockey World Championships held in Ostrava (CZE) from May 1-6.

There were five of us from Finland, myself, Jarno Silvonen and our athletes Annika, Amanda and Sinianne. Annika is a former national level ringette (and hockey, I think) player. She has suffered some bad knee injuries that left her unable to play at a higher level, so she took up sledge hockey about five years ago. As an otherwise able-bodied athlete, she would never classify under the current Paralympic standards for Para Ice Hockey. Amanda is a Para Athletics athlete, former world record holder and has won many medals on the world championship stage in her class (T54). She also took up Para Ice Hockey a couple of years ago, and while she’s tiny, she is mighty! Sinianne took up Para Ice Hockey earlier this year and is very new to the game. I think the week in Ostrava was the best for her, she (and I) learned a ton! We found that if Sinianne were to go through the classification process, she would indeed classify for Para Ice Hockey.

I went to Ostrava not knowing what to expect or who I would meet. Let’s just say this, I made a lot of new friends and learned so much my head was spinning! I brought my gear with me, so I was kitted up to coach on the ice. There were nearly 100 women there to play sledge hockey, it was great!

This tournament was made possible by a generous donation from the Agitos Foundation, which is an arm of the Paralympic movement. We had ice time for five days – and that was five days of practices and games. Like I said, I wasn’t sure what to expect, I was working with the goalies a lot and by the end of the week I was helping plan practices with the elite coaches, and I was even reffing some games! One of the best practices was when the Canadian coaches came out on the ice to teach how to check properly. Now on the men’s side I have seen some big hits, so watching the women from the development side of the sport was absolutely hilarious! The Great Britain crew were flattening each other and there were plenty of laughs that day. It was great to watch players improve over the course of the week in how they moved, righted themselves on their sledges, and also in shooting and goaltending.

Team Canada and Team USA were the only two teams with full rosters on the elite side. A mix of players from around Europe made up Team Europe, which played on the elite side as well. These three teams played a round robin to determine who would play in the final. Canada and the US are tightly matched on the skill level and it’s fair to say when they meet, the game can go either way. Team Europe still has a little ways to go to on par with Canada and the US, but it was a great chance for the players to play together. The US won gold in a tight 1-0 win over Canada in the final, not the way I wanted it to go, but hey – that’s hockey.

There were also athletes from Great Britain (GB), Scotland, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Australia, Croatia, Finland, Sweden, Norway and France. Unfortunately there were no teams from Asia this time around. These countries made up the “Development division” of the tournament. The rules were pretty relaxed, as teams were allowed to borrow players from other teams to fill their roster, for example Team Finland-Sweden didn’t have a goalie. Team Finland-Sweden combined to win gold over Norway and GB1 and GB2 fought it out for bronze. We didn’t do it alone – we borrowed a lot of players to make that win possible! At the end of the day it was super fun to win, what a great feeling!

It was nice to see that there were a lot of female coaches; Canada, the US and Europe all had female head coaches – and in the world of Paralympic sport, that seems to be a rarity. I also met the head coach of the Czech men’s Para Ice Hockey team and a member of the Norwegian men’s national team – great guys! The UK had a fabulous crew and I spent a lot time hanging around with them during the day.

Going forward from that tournament meant coming down from a big high. Developing the sport of sledge hockey for women in Finland is going to take some work. The game cannot develop further on the (sanctioned) Paralympic level until there are six nations able to field full teams for the Paralympics. Women’s sledge hockey will not be on the 2022 Paralympic schedule, so the next goal is 2026. So, in Finland we have a lot of work to do.

On the men’s side, Team Finland will be the host of the upcoming C-Division championships to be held in Vierumäki in early November. I actually got a chance to join one of their practices just last week, so it was good to see them ahead of the tournament. The guys were in Sweden last weekend for a tournament and some practice games against the Swedish national team. While they had a tough go and lost their games, it was a good tune-up for them ahead of Vierumäki. See more here.

And again, watch this space…

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