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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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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.