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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