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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!

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Sledge Hockey Review: Manchester Phoenix vs Cardiff Devils [12.07.2014]

Cardiff Devils (photo not actually from this game!)

Cardiff Devils (photo not actually from this game – credit to Gemma Beer!)

I was really looking forward to this game.  It was the first time I’d had a chance to see Cardiff play (theirs are the only home games that are too far for me to travel to) and after the last time these two teams got together (only last weekend), it was promising to be a good game.

A little background: Cardiff Devils have been around for years – as the Cardiff Huskies they are, I believe, the most long-established sledge hockey team in the UK.

However, they only recently joined the BSHA Planet Ice League, and last year were in division two.  Coming into the top division this year, they were probably considered the underdogs and their first two games of the season saw them losing 8-0 and then 14-0.  However, with the kind of true grit and determination that is only found in hockey, they refused to give up.

Last weekend saw them at home against Manchester Phoenix.  In a result that I’m not sure anyone expected (including the Cardiff players themselves), they came away with a resounding win of 5-2!  If that doesn’t show what good training and dedication can do for a team in just a few months, I don’t know what does.

So yesterday’s game was the return leg of this head-to-head, this time with Manchester having the home advantage.  Having spoken to some of the Manchester players beforehand, I knew they weren’t willing to give this one up easily, but on the other hand, Cardiff were still flying high from their fantastic game the week before.  Neither team was going to go down without a fight, and that was evident from the very beginning.

Both teams played especially hard in the first period, with both netminders – Han O’Connor for Cardiff and Steve Midghall for Manchester – being put to work early and often.  Manchester’s Anthony Booth had some extremely good chances during the period, but O’Connor refused to let him through, and by the end of the first, the score was 0-0.

Into the second, and no sooner had I tweeted “Who’s going to be the first to score?” than Booth finally found a way past O’Connor and got Manchester on the scoreboard.  The second period was largely dominated by big hits, and a couple of patented Karl Nicholson breakaways, although neither of them made it into the back of the net.  Although at one point, Cardiff’s Tim James made it into the net.  Not the puck.  Just him.  Oops.

And then, with just one single second remaining on the clock, Cardiff’s captain, Russell Willey managed to sneak the puck past Midghall where it just barely crossed the line.  Cardiff were ecstatic, Manchester not so much.

But that didn’t matter, because it took just 10 more seconds (and an intermission break!) for Nicholson to give Manchester the lead again.  Which they held onto for about 5 minutes, until Cardiff’s Paul Furber swept the puck neatly into the top corner of Manchester’s net, and we were back at a tie on 2-2.

I was honestly starting to think we might get our first tie game of the season, as both teams were so evenly matched on the ice.  But when Cardiff received two penalties in quick succession, they allowed Manchester more than a minute of 5-on-3 power play time.  Their PK team worked hard, with O’Connor holding them at bay for as long as she could, and they killed off the first penalty.  But a beautiful shot from Manchester’s Rob Allen found the back of the net, giving him his first goal of the season, and giving Manchester the lead with less than 6 minutes remaining on the clock.

As hard as they tried – and they really tried hard – Cardiff couldn’t pull it back and the final score was 3-2 to Manchester (of course, if you aggregate the scores from the two games, Cardiff won 7-5!).

MVP of the game was Anthony Booth who totally deserved it for his goal, although the other standout player in my opinion was Steve Thomas from Cardiff.  Brilliant in the defensive zone overall, he has fantastic puck handling skills as well.  Also, I had a complaint from a photographer friend that Nicholson was too fast on the ice and we needed to slow him down!

Next Saturday’s game is Kingston Kestrels vs Peterborough Phantoms.  Due to Hull Arena closing for a couple of weeks, the game has been relocated to Ice Sheffield, albeit at the much later time of 21:30.  I’m pleased as it’s easier for me to get to than Hull, but I know it’s going to be tough for Kingston, as they officially have the home advantage, but they won’t have their usual supporters around them.  If you’re free on Saturday evening, please come along to the game.

Sledge Hockey Review: Manchester Phoenix vs Peterborough Phantoms [14.06.2014]

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Manchester Phoenix netminder, Steven Midghall

This was only the second sledge hockey game I’d seen live, and the first time I’d been to Silverblades in Altrincham.  This was the fifth game of the 2014 Planet Ice Sledge Hockey League season, and based on historical encounters between the two teams, Peterborough were the favourite to win.

However, some pretty serious scheduling issues meant that the Phantoms travelled up from Peterborough with only 5 players.  Considering that there should be 6 of them on the ice at any one time, it was a little concerning.  Two last-minute stand-ins, in the form of retired-player Matt Lloyd and Barry Sprakes (who had never played sledge hockey before) from the Widnes Wild, meant that the game could go ahead.

When Peterborough received their first (and only) penalty of the game less than a minute into the game, it gave Manchester a power play opportunity that team captain Karl Nicholson put to good use.  That wasn’t the last goal he would score in this game.  Not by a long-shot (please excuse the pun).  With Lloyd in goal, the usual netminder for Peterborough, Rob Gaze, was playing outfield for the first period.  But both of them could only watch as two more goals went in for Manchester; another for Nicholson, and one for Anthony Booth (which, of course, Nicholson assisted on).  But Peterborough weren’t going down without a fight and just after Manchester’s third goal, Peterborough’s Matt Coleman pulled one back for the team, much to the delight of the travelling Peterborough supporters.  The end of the first period ended 3-1 Manchester.

The length of his retirement was starting to show, as Lloyd came off at the end of the first having some pain in his shoulder.  Gaze picked up his usual kit and headed back into goal for the second period.  By now, with only 6 players remaining dressed for the team, it meant that there were no more substitutions for the Phantoms.  Every player would be on the ice for every minute of the game.

They still fought back though, causing Gaze to have to make some pretty impressive saves, piling on the pressure, ignoring the obvious exhaustion they must have been feeling.  Despite their efforts though, Nicholson managed to get the puck into the back of the net twice in the second period, taking the score to 5-1.

The third period was much the same, with Manchester not giving an inch, and Peterborough fighting to try and keep some control.  But even despite his brief stint in the penalty box, nothing was slowing Manchester’s captain down.  Another two  goals for Nicholson, taking his tally to 6, and it seemed like that would be it.  However, through the fatigue, relative newcomer to the Phantoms, Jon Le Galloudec, managed to get the puck past Manchester’s netminder, Steven Midghall, with around three minutes left on the clock.  It was his first ever League goal and gave Peterborough a final burst of energy to see them through to the end.

The final score was 7-2, with the Planet Ice MVP beanie going to Nicholson for his double hat trick, although I’m pretty sure that the Most Valuable Players were Matt Lloyd and Barry Sprakes for jumping in at the last minute to allow the game to go ahead!

On a personal note, it was the first time I’d seen Peterborough play, and I knew going into it that they were short of a few of their top players, but they played really well.  For those guys to play two full periods with only a brief intermission in between was one of the more impressive things I’ve ever seen in this sport.  True meaning of teamwork and dedication right there on the ice.  Also, I’m pretty sure that if Manchester wanted to, they could field just Nicholson and they’d still manage a win.  Shout outs to Rob Allen and Graham Wilson for Manchester, for each getting 3 assists in the game.  And special thanks to Graham for advice that helped me actually get to the game on time – stupid public transport in Manchester!

The next two games are head-to-heads between Cardiff and Manchester.  The first leg is in Cardiff on 5th July, with the return game in Manchester on 12th July.

Manchester Phoenix vs Kingston Kestrels [10.05.2014]

Dear Diary,

Today I went to my first sledge hockey game and it was awesome…

20140510_133544(Please excuse the crappy photo, I only had my phone and was taking photos through the glass)

Seriously though, I enjoyed myself far more than I thought I would.  The teams were fantastic, with lots of goals (okay, so maybe they were a little one sided, with the Kestrels winning 7-1, but still fun), and a lot of speed, skill and determination.  Despite being in a sledge, the hits seem just as hard as regular hockey, with more than one of them leaving me wincing in sympathy.

The rules are almost identical to IIHF hockey rules, with a few exceptions, so it’s easy to follow, but the style of play is rather different.  Board battles are still the same, but there is a lot more passing and bouncing the puck off the boards than I expected.  Because it’s hard to build up speed in a sledge while controlling the puck (the sticks are also the means of propelling themselves on the ice), there are less breakaways, and more long passes.

There were two big things that I noticed about the game though.

The first was the clear difference in skill levels between the Team GB players and the others.  Not that the non-international players were bad, at all (hell, the fact that they’re on the team means they’re pretty damn good), but the GB players were a step above the rest.  The goals in the game were scored by Matt Clarkson (Kestrels, 3 goals), Ian Warner (Kestrels, 3 goals), Matt Woollias (Kestrels, 1 goal) and Karl Nicholson (Phoenix, 1 goal).  All four of them are Team GB players.  Everyone was great to watch, but those guys really stood out for me.

The second thing I noticed made me sad.  There were only a tiny amount of supporters there, and I strongly suspect that most of them were family and friends of the players.  In fact, when I mentioned to someone that I was there and didn’t already know one of the players, they seemed almost shocked.  So, fair warning.  I’m going to continue to promote sledge hockey on my blog and my twitter.  I’ll keep promoting it until it’s no longer needed (so probably for a fair while yet).  It’s a fantastic sport, and close enough to regular hockey that if you’re a hockey fan, you’ll enjoy this too.

For me, personally, one of the other endearing fact about the sport is that the players and teams are so happy to interact on social media.  Having players favourite my tweets, or retweet me makes me happy.  It makes me more likely to keep tweeting and talking about them, and it makes me feel like they actually want me there at the games.  I’m a big believer in the power of social media in any case, but this is proving my point again.  Both the Kestrels and the Phoenix have been so friendly towards me on twitter, it just makes me want to support them more.

Oh, and while I wasn’t sure which team to support at the start, I think it’s going to be Kingston.  Two hat tricks in my first game pretty much seals the deal – unless  Manchester can pull out something spectacular for their next game against Peterborough on June 14th.  For those who want to watch Kingston play, their next game is May 24th against Cardiff.

So, in conclusion, sledge hockey is awesome, and you should all go watch a game or three.