As a forward for the Canadian national sledge hockey team, Billy Bridges has carved out a 15-year career that has made him one of the greatest to have ever taken to the ice. Stars like Bridges are forcing sledge hockey into the larger sports conversation. Excelling in multiple sports, Bridges has quietly assembled one of the greatest athletic careers in Canadian sporting history.
He made his debut with the Canadian national sledge hockey team in 1998 (at the age of 14), making him the youngest player ever to debut with the squad. Along with national sledge hockey teammate (and fellow wheelchair basketball player) Bradley Bowden, the two were trained by Jeff Penner. Bowden and Bridges both competed as teenagers with the Kitchener Sidewinders in the 1990s.
Bridges' international experience is extensive and makes his presence on the squad a very strong one. “There are a lot of leaders on the team. I see myself as a veteran with lots of experience and lots of knowledge to share. I am lucky that quite a few guys train with me in my area.”
Among the highlights of his career, Bridges has competed in three Paralympic Winter Games (2002, 2006 and 2010), claiming gold at the 2006 Games in Torino. Bridges has also grabbed gold medals at the 2000 and 2008 IPC Sledge Hockey World Championships. In his home province of Prince Edward Island, Bridges would help the Canadians win gold at the 2008 World Sledge Hockey Challenge.
One of his greatest performances came at the 2009 Hockey Canada Cup in Vancouver. On the strength of nine goals and six assists, his 15 points led all competitors as Canada claimed a gold medal. In that same year, he helped Canada claim the gold medal at the 2009 Four Nations Tournament in Nagano, Japan.
As one of the competitors for Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympic Winter Games, Bridges was part of the heartbreaking fourth-place finish in sledge hockey. Despite the disappointment, he reflects on Vancouver and its impact. “Sledge hockey has thousands of players. The exposure has grown. In between Hockey Canada and the Vancouver Paralympic Games, they have done everything for the promotion of our sport. To compete on TSN in High Def is the pinnacle of our sport.”
Bridges is also an accomplished wheelchair basketball player. With the Ontario provincial team, he claimed seven consecutive gold medals in the Canadian National Championships. In later years, he would play professional wheelchair basketball in Spain. “In Spain, I was given a chance to play a disabled sport professionally, which was really cool. It is the pinnacle of what disabled sports are all about.”
Recently, Bridges has expanded his athletic resume to include wheelchair tennis. “I have also played professionally on the wheelchair tennis tour. It goes through Canada, the United States and Europe. To be able to do this as a full-time job is what every kid dreams of. As a disabled child, you get that taken away from you.”
When asked if disabled youngsters call him an inspiration, he replied with humility, “It happens. I am involved in a youth program that Tennis Canada has called Little Aces. There is also a Wheelchair Little Aces program and I help them out a lot.”
Although the opportunity to claim a gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Paralympic Winter Games is a goal, Bridges approaches his role on the team with great maturity. “Nothing is promised on this team. To do well in Sochi would be great. Right now, a gold medal (at the 2013 Worlds) in Korea means everything.”
Having played professional wheelchair basketball, the dream of a pro league for sledge hockey is one that may approach reality. “Absolutely. It may be a little ways off still, but it will probably happen in Europe first.”
Married to Winter Games gold medalist Sami Jo Small, she has left her own mark on the frozen perimeter of the rink. In addition to her experiences with the Canadian national women’s hockey team, Small is also one of the co-founders of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
Small was a significant force in lobbying the National Hockey League for support. Her hard work culminated with the sponsorship of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames announcing their support in the autumn of 2012.
“I am proud that she was one of the major parts of getting the National Hockey League involved with the CWHL. It is one of the many things I am proud of her for. She has helped raise four million dollars. Today, the players no longer have to pay to play. She has taken bigger steps. Her work in approaching all these places for sponsorship, it is incredible.”
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.