Women’s Sledge Hockey Makes Its Mark

USA Women's Sled Team [Photo from USA Hockey]

USA Women’s Sled Team [Photo from USA Hockey]

Up until recently, for female sledge hockey players, their only opportunity to represent their country at an international level was as part of a men’s team that “allowed” female players to join them. However, very few women successfully managed this – there are only two currently listed on the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) website; Caroline Bonner from GB and Stine Frydenlund of Norway.

However, this month, something significant has changed in this respect.

Brampton Ontario is the home of the Cruisers Cup, an annual ice sledge hockey tournament open to teams from across North America. This year, the Cruisers Cup has an additional tournament happening alongside – the inaugural IPC Sledge Hockey International Women’s Cup.

This is the first time that women’s sledge hockey has been played at such a high level, and while there are only three teams competing this year, it is hopefully just the first time of many. The format of the event has the three teams – USA, Canada and Europe – play against each other twice in a round robin format. This is then followed by the playoffs in which the 2nd and 3rd place teams face each other, with the winner going through to play the 1st place team for a gold medal. This means that no matter the outcome of the round robin stage, it’s still possible for any of the three teams to win the gold.

The competition started off with the match-up that everyone wanted to see – Canada vs USA.   Both teams have extremely strong women’s teams, but two players stood out from the start. Kelsey Di Claudio and Erica Mitchell of USA combined to score all five goals in their first game, which ended with USA beating Canada 5-2.   Team Canada’s goals were scored by Ashley Goure (you’ll hear that name a lot in this review too!) and Corin Metzger.

There were three games each day, which meant all three teams playing twice. The luck of the draw meant that Canada went on to a second game a couple of hours later, this time facing the underdogs of the competition, Europe. Fielding a team of players from a number of countries, Europe fought their way hard through every game. Their first game had them scoring first from Annika Santanen but Ashley Goure followed soon after, netting the first goal for Canada. Another two from Goure, two from Corin Metzger and one each from Danica McPhee and Geneva Coulter finished the game 6-1 to Canada.

The third game of the day saw Europe in their back-to-back, now facing USA. Europe were unable to find the back of the net in this game, which saw USA finish with 9 goals, including four each for Erica Mitchell and Kelsey DiClaudio. The final goal of the game was scored by Robynne Hill.

Day two of the tournament had Europe against Canada again. Annika Santanen and Stine Frydenlund combined to score the three goals for Europe, including the only goal in the second period of the game. Ashley Goure, Geneva Coulter, Ally Godin and team captain Christina Picton came away with six between them to win the game for Canada.

USA and Canada lined up against each other for the fifth game of the tournament. It was clear how strong the rivalry was getting when you looked at the penalties on the game – the previous four games had only three penalties throughout; this game had five of them, including two which led to power play goals! Canada had suffered an unfortunate blow when Christina Picton was ruled out of the lineup with an injury. Despite this, Canada controlled the majority of the game, but couldn’t quite manage the win. Unsurprisingly, the same names appeared on the scoresheet for this game; Ashley Goure had a hat-trick for Canada, as did Kelsey DiClaudio for USA, with Morgan Hosbrough also scoring for USA.

The final game of the round robin stage saw USA and Europe facing each other once more.   Playing with only six skaters, Europe refused to give up. USA scored six goals before Europe managed to find the back of the net in the last few minutes of the game, thanks to Maren Norheim. Kelsey DiClaudio got herself another hat-trick, with the other goals scored by Nina Nissly and Susan Kluting, who scored two.

The results of the round robin meant that Canada and Europe battled against each other once more, fighting for the opportunity to compete in the gold medal game against USA. Closer than any of the previous games, Canada were boosted by the knowledge that their captain was returning to the ice. It took less than five minutes for the first goal, unassisted from Ashley Goure, but Europe held Canada back until the third period, when Goure scored her second of the game, cementing Canada’s advancement through to the final with a 2-0 win.

The gold medal game was as fast and furious as everyone hoped. No matter the hockey variation or the gender of the players, USA vs Canada is always going to be a fun game, and this was no different. USA dominated the scoring with Kelsey DiClaudio scoring three in the first period (although her first goal was originally credited to Erica Mitchell), and Erica scoring the fourth for the team. The second period was goal-free, despite a power play opportunity for USA after a holding penalty. Shortly into the third period, Canada had a power play chance, but couldn’t convert. A few minutes later, they had their own penalty to kill. USA failed to score on the power play, but an unassisted Kelsey DiClaudio goal followed. Canada managed to pull one back near the end of the game, thanks to Ashley Goure, but it wasn’t enough.

USA were undefeated throughout the tournament, in large part to DiClaudio and Mitchell, who teamed up for an amazing 24 goals and 9 assists, and they thoroughly deserved the gold medals they received. Apparently the two helper dogs that travelled with the team also received gold medals with their teams!

However, winning was only a small aspect of this tournament.

While all-female sledge hockey teams are still rare, this tournament proved that there is a place for them. There are so few women who are part of the mixed gender teams, which may indicate there is a difference in skill level at the moment. This isn’t a negative comment on women’s sledge hockey at all, merely a factor that needs to be considered. If women can’t reach the same level as their male counterparts to compete internationally, there needs to be a separate category for them to compete in.

More international level play will lead to more visibility for female players and the more young women will be inspired to try the sport themselves. Once there are more women involved, the competition level will naturally increase, bringing it in line with the more popular male teams.

The eventual hope is that Women’s Sledge Hockey becomes a sport in its own right, maybe as soon as the 2022 Winter Paralympic Games. Only the IPC can make this decision, and they need to know that there is enough interest and potential participation to make it worthwhile.

For more information on Sledge Hockey, visit the IPC website: http://www.paralympic.org/ice-sledge-hockey
For more information on the Cruisers Cup, visit their website: http://www.cruisers-sports.com/cruiserscup/home.shtml

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Goodbye CHL, Hello ECHL

2014 ECHL Kelly Cup Champions, Alaska Aces [Photo from ECHL.com]

2014 ECHL Kelly Cup Champions, Alaska Aces
[Photo from ECHL.com]

The last year or so hasn’t been easy for the Central Hockey League in North America.

Despite an expansion in 2013 that introduced Brampton Beast – the first Canadian team – into the league, they’ve struggled to keep things running smoothly.  The newest team, St Charles Chill only lasted a single season before announcing it was ceasing operations in May this year.  And both the Arizona Sundogs (with their recent signing ex-EIHLer Drew Fata) and the Denver Cutthroats have suspended operations, although press releases indicate that they hope to return for the 2015-16 season.

But even if they do, they won’t be returning to the CHL.

As announced today, the remaining seven teams of the CHL will be merged into the ECHL for the upcoming season.  Allen Americans, Brampton Beast, Missouri Mavericks, Quad City Mallards, Rapid City Rush, Tulsa Oilers and Wichita Thunder will be expansion teams for the league, taking the ECHL up to a total of 28 teams across 20 states and 1 Canadian province.

The 2014-15 season is due to start on 17th October, and the hope is that date can still be met.  But there will be a lot of work to be done between now and then, including new schedules, divisional alignment and the format for the Kelly Cup Playoffs.

On the ECHL website, Commissioner Brian McKenna stated that “There will be logistical challenges in the short term, however, in the long term, it is certainly in the best interest of the ECHL, the new Members and minor-league hockey in general.”

No hockey fan ever wants to see a league fold like the CHL has done, but we – and the seven teams who will need to get used to their new home this season – can only be grateful to the ECHL.

Paul Swindlehurst: A Brit in Chicago

A few weeks ago, the British hockey world was pleasantly surprised to discover that one of our own, Paul Swindlehurst of the Dundee Stars, had been invited to hit the ice for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Image found on twitter - original photographer unknown

Image found on twitter – original photographer unknown

An Original Six team, the ‘Hawks lifted the Stanley Cup twice in recent years, in 2010 and 2013, and are undeniably one of the strongest teams in the league right now. So for a local lad to be invited to join them for their rookie tournament is a pretty big deal. Rookie tournaments are an annual thing, taking place every year before the NHL pre-season begins. Designed to give the NHL scouts a better look at some of the future players, the Blackhawks played in against rookies from the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Ottawa Senators in a round-robin series of games.  While the actual results are largely unimportant, the opportunity for these youngsters is enormous. Players from the AHL farm team and some of the newer youngsters already rostered to the NHL team are joined by a selection of undrafted players who are specifically invited by the team scouts.

One of those invitees this year was Paul Swindlehurst.

After spending some of his teenage years training in Canada, Paul returned to the UK for the 2011 season, joining Swindon Wildcats in the EPL, before making the move to Dundee.  A regular in the Under 18 and Under 20 National Teams, Paul also took his place on the Great Britain senior team for their World Championships this year.  It was presumably during this time that he was spotted by the Blackhawks’ scouts.

Defenseman roster for the Blackhawks Prospect Tournament 2014

Defensemen rostered for the Blackhawks Prospect Tournament 2014

While Paul didn’t make the roster for the first of the three tournament games, vs Toronto Maple Leafs, he was rostered for the other two, paired with Justin Holl for the game against Pittsbugh, and with Dillon Fournier against Ottawa.  In Pittsburgh, Paul even notched an assist!

image

All three of them are now training with the Blackhawks AHL affiliate, Rockford Icehogs, in preparation for their pre-season, which starts on Thursday 2nd October. It’s looking like Paul will be wearing #32 for the Icehogs.

We’ll be following him with Rockford over the next couple of weeks, but no matter what happens, it’s clear that Paul is making way for other Brits to play professional ice hockey in North America.  Even if he gets “relegated” down to the ECHL, it’s still something to be proud of and proves that Britain can produce players that can compete with the best in the world.  With Paul bringing Britain to the attention of professional North American scouts, it’s only a matter of time before the next players follow in his footsteps.

From the Icehogs Flickr Account

From the Icehogs Flickr Account

In Review: 2014 Sledge Hockey Season

One of the photos I took at my first sledge hockey game!

One of the photos I took at my first sledge hockey game!

With the final league game of the 2014 Sledge Hockey season now over, and only the playoffs to go, I’ll soon be writing a review of this season’s UK sledge hockey for the league’s official website, but I also wanted to write something less formal and more fan-based for myself.

So, in the interests of clarity, I’m writing this as CarolinaKaniac (sledge hockey fan) and not as Kim (BSHA social media coordinator)!

This season was my introduction to sledge. Like other people, I’d seen it on TV when watching the Paralympic games in Sochi, but hadn’t really even considered that it existed here in the UK.  After a search online, I discovered that there seemed to be a few teams, but I couldn’t find much information.

I got in touch with the British Sledge Hockey Association through their website to ask for more information and someone I could talk to so I could maybe write a blog post. I got a reply from a guy called Karl Nicholson. A Google search told me he played for Manchester Phoenix as well as the GB team.  He told me about a game that was coming up – the first game of the new season between my closest team, the Kingston Kestrels and his Phoenix team. I couldn’t resist going, and even managed to convince a couple of Sheffield Steelers fans I know to go along too.

You might remember my blog post after that game, where I truly fell in love with the sport.  Nothing has changed, except that I’m lucky enough now to call Karl and a lot of these players my friends. I work with them, and I’m involved with the running of the newest team in the country. A lot can change in a few months.

This season was the first, I believe, to be played in this format. Previous years, the teams trained for most of the year by themselves with a few friendly games, then went head-to-head in one big playoff weekend. This season, each team played three home and three away games, allowing a proper fanbase to start building up, and giving more opportunity for people to discover sledge hockey.

Of the 12 games this season, I’ve only been to half of them (trust me, that will change next season!) but I’ve seen each of the teams play a couple of times at least.

Cardiff Devils are the most interesting team from my point of view. Although they’ve been around for a long time (previously as the Cardiff Huskies), they’re the newest team in the league. Most of their team have only been playing for a couple of years and while they have two Paralympians, they both compete in Summer sports too, so aren’t always available for games. When you look at the scores for the Cardiff games, they tend to look very one-sided, but watching them on the ice tells a different story. They’re becoming a much stronger team, with some players literally improving during the course of the game. Their netminder, Han O’Connor came over from the Cardiff Comets to help the team practice and has just spent her first season in a sledge. With a solid defense in front of her, she’s going to become awesome.

The thing I love most about Cardiff is their eternal optimism. When a team loses 14-0, more than once,  you could excuse them for feeling like there’s no point. But I’ve never ever seen or felt that coming from any of the team. They keep pushing themselves and they’re determined to keep improving. And they will.  I really look forward to seeing how much more they improve during the off-season.

Peterborough Phantoms have had an amazing year. They’ve become such a strong team, with a group of guys who are really finding their form. It’s shown in their results this season – they’ve just come out on top as  League Champions, with only one loss (and that loss was largely down to them having to play with borrowed players and a short bench).  They have some fantastic players on their team, especially Gary Farmer and Matt Coleman who are amongst the highest goal scorers in the league.  Their netminder, Rob Gaze, is also a member of the GB team, and has played 5 out of 6 games and only conceded 7 goals.  Between that combination, and an extremely dedicated team, they are just continuing to get better.  It’s going to take a lot for anyone else to get past them next season.

Manchester Phoenix are one of the two teams I know best.  I’ve been to all of their home games this season and got to know a lot of the players.  They’re a relatively new team, having only been part of the league for two seasons, and it’s fantastic to see how far they’ve come.  I hate to stroke his ego any more than I have to, but watching Karl Nicholson on the ice is one of my favourite things about sledge – he’s fast and extremely talented.  The team also has probably the strongest fanbase right now, thanks to their links with the Manchester Phoenix EPL team, and home games for them are starting to feel like “proper hockey”.  I know that sounds like I’m being critical of the other games in the league, but largely sledge games are treated like rec games.  Manchester are the first, in my opinion, to push the more professional image of the sport.  Quickly putting on my BSHA hat, I’m hoping to be able to make this the norm next season, across all of the teams – it’s something that the sport desperately needs.

Last, and by no means least, the Kingston Kestrels.  My local team (at least until next season when the Sheffield Steelkings join the league!), and the other team I know especially well.  They’re struggling for team members, which can sometimes cause issues, such as a couple of weeks ago when they had to forfeit a game as they couldn’t ice a full team.  But the players that they have are extremely good.  They have one of the highest percentage of GB players and years of experience between them, which shows when they are on the ice together.  Matt Clarkson and Matt Woollias are at the top of the points table, and  their netminder, Bryan Hackworth, is another GB player with only 3 goals against him this season. The team’s other issue this season has been their home rink – Hull Ice Arena.  Needing some essential maintenance, the team has lost their training sessions, and have had to move their last two home games to IceSheffield as a temporary measure.  The lack of training has hurt them badly, and no matter how good your individual players are, when they don’t get the chance to train together, it causes problems.

Next weekend is the playoffs, with all four teams playing – Manchester vs Cardiff for the 3rd/4th place game, and Kingston vs Peterborough for the championship trophy.  I won’t be there as I’m away for the weekend with friends, but if you have the chance to get to Coventry, I can’t recommend it highly enough.  It’s going to be an amazing game with all four teams giving it their all.

Overall, this has been a fantastic season.  I’ve watched some amazingly talented players on the ice, and I’ve managed to introduce a few new fans to the sport.  I’ve made some wonderful new friends, and I’ve had the chance to do things that I never thought I would.

And while it’s the end of the season, it doesn’t mean that sledge hockey stops.  The guys will still be training, and we’re hoping to have some friendly games and mini-tournaments during the off-season.  I’ll still be following things, and tweeting/blogging about it.   But I really can’t wait for next season to start!

Ice Bucket Challenge

If you’ve not heard of the ALS Awareness Ice Bucket Challenge, where have you been?

In brief, it’s a way of bringing attention to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and as Motor Neurone Disease here in the UK.  It’s a horrid disease which is currently both fatal and incurable, and over the last few weeks, social media has been rife with people dumping buckets of ice water over their heads in a bid to make more people aware of the disease, and to raise money for research into a cure.

Celebrities around the world have been taking part, including a huge amount of NHL and NFL players, and several of the Elite League players here in the UK (although in the UK, the same challenge is also being used for another very worthy cause – Macmillan Cancer Support).  Word has been spreading like wildfire (or wildfreeze, I suppose would be more apt), and the most important thing (other than watching shirtless hockey players dump freezing water over themselves) is that it’s working.  In less than a month, the ALS Association in the US has received over $15million in donations, compared to $1.8million in the same period last year.

To donate in the UK through the Motor Neurone Disease Association (MNDA), you just need to text ICED55 followed by an amount (such as £10) to 70070.

Like this.

 

So, after a challenge to all Pens fans from Mario Lemieux, my best friend in the world, Rosie (@71_pens_87), decided to do it.  And when I successfully screwed up the recording of her video, causing her to have to do it twice, I knew it was my turn next.  And if you know me, you know that getting me to stand up in front of a video camera and speak was one hell of a personal challenge for me.

In return, I’m challenging Sammo with the Women’s England Squad in Finland, Karl Nicholson, captain of the Manchester Phoenix Sledge Hockey Team, and Matt Clarkson, captain of the Kingston Kestrels Sledge Hockey Team.

 

It’s the final countdown

We’ve had our flight times confirmed and the inevitable early start on Sunday is looming.

The larger hockey bag has been dragged out of the shed and extra tape of all sorts and sizes has been ordered.

The schedule for the week has been released to us and it’s a doozy. I thought last year was busy, but this year is chocka.

I sometimes get comments at work that I’m going on a holiday out to Finland. Trust me when I say that I’m not.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that we’re just going out to play hockey. Sure, we’re training once a day and playing 4 games. On top of that we’ve got off ice testing, Strength & Conditioning (so I’ve been told) sessions, and other off ice activities!

We’ll be up at 8am most days and curfew is at 11pm (thereabouts) but I’ve no doubt we’ll all be knackered at the end of each day. Luckily we’ve got 4 meals a day!

Here’s a look at our schedule 🙂england 2014 finland schedule

Trials and Tribulations

Where does it all start? How do you even begin to think about trying out for the Women’s England squad?

Obviously, make sure you play ice hockey & hold a British passport! It also helps to be a lass and be registered with a club. It doesn’t matter if you play for a div 2, div 1 or premier club. What matters is your attitude and effort level.

It’s an oft repeated motto in hockey & exercise circles but it is perfectly true, hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.

The current set up for the selection of the squad is as follows.

  • Attend North or South trials (dependent on your location)
  • Be invited to attend Combined North & South trials
  • Be invited to attend team training
  • Be selected for the England squad

I make it sound so easy, right?

Here’s what I have personally experienced and how I first got involved.  (I am of course, only speaking for what happens in the South. I understand the North team trial out of Sheffield, but I’m not 100%.)

One of my teammates wanted to try out for the South squad and didn’t want to go by herself. She talked me into going along with her and I’m really glad she did.

Off we trekked to the Lee Valley ice rink in London late on a Saturday night when training started at 10:45pm until 12:15am. Yup. You’re not reading that wrong. We’re then rushing to shower, pack up and get out of the rink and head back home.

I’m glad it’s at the weekend (so that I’ve got time to recover before the working week starts again), I view it as it extra ice and it’s only £10 for an hour & a half of hockey on a decent sized rink.

Previously, the South & North teams would be selected and then there would be 2 games of North vs South. It has only been from this year that there has been combined training with the 2 squads, which is probably more beneficial from the coaches point of view. However, I know many players, including myself, feel as though they perform better in a game scenario. Of course, games aren’t conducive to viewing a players skill sets by a coach in a controlled situation.

Once selected for Combined training, the trials are held up in Sheffield. Still for an hour and a half of ice and still for just £10. Depending on the available times, it is often another late start and a finish of midnight. Cue more rapid showering and getting out of the rink as quickly as possible. After that, the long drive home. 4am finishes have become all too routine for me sadly!

You might think I’m painting a bleak picture but this is what it takes to represent your country. To pull on a shirt for Team England & play hockey requires commitment and dedication.

Waiting for emails to find out if you’ve made the cut can be a bit nervy!

It’s worth it though. You get an incredible opportunity to represent your country, to play hockey in a place you may never have played before, against teams you would never normally get the chance to play against and have experiences that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.