By Wesley King
For Jean Labonté, the Ottawa-based captain of the national men’s sledge hockey team, a recent international award is another validation for years of hard work.
This month the team was chosen by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) to win the 2007 award for best team performance.
The Paralympic Sport Award follows the team’s gold medal victory at last year’s Winter Games in Turin, Italy. That gold medal was Canada’s first in sledge hockey and came after a 3-0 win over a powerful Norway squad in the final.
The team accepted the award last Saturday at the IPC awards gala in Seoul, South Korea.
“I’ve been on the team since 1996, and that was my third Olympics,” Labonté says. “I have seen a lot of changes both for the program and the sport, and they both have evolved so much.”
In 2002 the team finished fourth in the Salt Lake City Paralympic Games, falling just short of a medal. But going into the 2006 games Labonté knew the team was far more prepared.
“Our team was working hard to improve all the time and that’s part of the reason we’re very proud to be recognized by the IPC,” he says.
The award is an added bonus on two great years, head coach Jeff Snyder says. This year the team followed up the Paralympic gold medal win with another first place result at the World Sledge Hockey Challenge in March.
“The award comes as a real validation for our program,” Snyder says.
Team members are spread across the country, and try to meet at least once a month in the stretches between international competitions. In the meanwhile, they play on their own clubs, like Labonté’s Ottawa-area team the Sledgehammers, to keep in shape.
“But our focus is always on the national team,” Labonté says.
Sledge hockey was invented in Sweden in 1961, but it wasn’t until 1994 that it became an official event in the Paralympic games. While anyone can play at most levels, to play in the Paralympics players must have a permanent disability in the lower part of their body.
The Canadian program was first established as a sports federation in 1993, and was given full member status by Hockey Canada in 2003. That full status made a real difference to the program, Labonté says.
Team Manager Adam Crockatt says there is just a lot more recognition of the program. Ticket sales have steadily increased for the last six years, though they are still miniscule compared to able-bodied hockey.
“More people know about this sport now, and we have to keep generating that interest,” says Crockatt. “The players deserve the credit.”
Next up for the national team is the Four Nations Cup in Japan next January, and Labonté says the team will be ready to go.
“The IPC award is really, really nice,” he says. “And we have to use the momentum to reach out and get more people involved.”