First off, I would like to note that I've never been much of a follower of ice sledge hockey. The first time I heard about this variant of ice hockey was in 2002 at the Salt Lake Paralympics. Still, I wasn't in tune with watching sledge hockey on a frequent basis.
The first impressions I had of sledge hockey are disabled athletes converted into stylized human skates. These skates could pass to themselves while propelling their way with their picks and they shot pucks as if it was a ping pong ball to a wooden racket with reckless abandon.
Fast forward eight years to the upcoming 2010 Winter Paralympics and the tournament held at the UBC Thunderbird Arena. With Canada's home ice advantage sure to goad the home team on, will they be able to defend the gold they earned at Turin four years ago? Or will one of the other seven teams from their respective lands rise to the challenge?
And at a bargain price of $50 CAN for all ten games, it's worth every loonie and twonie. I mean, you can't get a nosebleed seat at Lakers home game for $50 CAN! It's a steal, I promise you.
Even though we are still in the middle of the Olympics, it's never too early to take a look at the teams taking part in the competition.
Sledge hockey was introduced to Canada by Sweden's Rolf Johansson in the early 1980's. Since its proliferation, Canada's national sledge hockey team has become one of the strongest in the world.
Team Canada earned gold medals at the 1991, 1992, 2000 and 2008 championships, a silver at the 1998 Paralympics, a bronze at the 1994 Paralympics (albeit as a demonstration sport) and the aforementioned gold in 2006.
One of the players to look out for is defenceman Jean Labonte. A member of the team since 1996, Labonte's longevity and leadership has allowed him to compete in three Paralympic tournaments and four World Sledge Hockey Championships.
Labonte also was a participant in the 2010 Olympic Torch Relay. Another veteran, Herve Lord, has been with the team since 1991 and is a four-time Canadian Sledge Hockey Championship gold-medalist.
Billy Bridges and Greg Westlake are strong scoring threats for Team Canada and will be exciting players to watch. Bridges earned 23 points (eight goals, 15 assists) in the last three Worlds, while Westlake tallied 10 goals in Canada's previous three Worlds campaigns.
At goalkeeper, keep your eye on Paul Rosen. A member of Team Canada since 2001, Rosen allowed just seven goals during the last three World Championships while boasting a 8-1 record and a 90.9 saves percentage. Benoit St.—Amand is a solid keeper in his own right and provides defensive depth between the pipes.
You would be a fool to not think that the prospect of Canada and the USA facing each other in an ice sledge hockey gold medal game or semifinal is possible. But Team USA, coached by J.J. O'Connor, have some very good sledders.
Here in the US, we call sledge hockey "sled hockey," just for your information. But going back to the point, this group of sledders is so good that they know how to win in dramatic fashion, as if it was all clockwork.
In their 2009 World Championship gold medal game with Norway, Andy Yohe scored a game-winner with just over 11 second to go in regulation. When the USA gets on their sleds and take to the ice, fans can expect more of the same.
By the way, they warmed themselves up with a 3-0 victory over hosts Japan earlier this year at the 2010 Japan Para Ice Sledge Championships at Nagano's Big Hat. So you can expect Team USA to ride a wave of momentum never before seen. In fact, you can take a look at some of the action right here .
Team USA is led by forward Alexi Salamone of the Buffalo Sabres (yes, they do have a sled hockey team, as do the Colorado Avalanche and New York Rangers, among others). During the 2009-10 season, Salamone has scored seven goals to go with six assistant in 15 games with Team USA.
Also keep an eye out for forwards Joe Howard, Taylor Lipsett and Adam Page, as well as defenceman Taylor Chace. Howard is an excellent facilitator and leads Team USA with eight assists. Chace and Page are known to deliver on when the Stars and Stripes have a man advantage, with two power play goals each so far this season.
At goalkeeper, Steve Cash is money between the pipes. In 692 minutes of playing time this year, Cash has a 1.04 goals against average and seven shutouts.
In comparison with their Olympic counterparts, Norway's sledge hockey team has accomplished far more. The Polar Bears, as they are called, earned gold medals at the 1998 Winter Paralympics and 2004 Worlds, as well as silvers at the 2000 Worlds and the 2002 and 2006 Winter Paralympics.
Key players to watch for Norway, who is coached by Morten Haglund, are center Rolf Einar Pedersen, defenceman Stig Tore Svee and forward Helge Bjorndstad. Pedersen led all players at the 2009 Worlds with four goals and five assists.
At goalie, expect Roger Johansen to earn the lion's share of time between the pipes. Johansen garnered a 93.0 saves percentage at the 2009 Worlds.
The birthplace of sledge hockey is Stockholm, Sweden. In 1961, Johannson and another Swede at a local sports club in the the city wanted to continue playing hockey. Together, they developed the sledge: a modified sled that includes two skate blades on a metal frame, as well as two round poles with bike handles that would be the precursor to the sticks used for sledge hockey today.
The Swedish national sledge hockey team, the Three Crowns, qualified for the 2010 Paralympics the long way. Coached by Janne Edbom, Sweden finished second to Estonia in Tournament B of the 2009 Worlds and then won the qualifying tournament just to make the field of eight.
The Three Crowns consist mainly of players in two clubs: FIFH Malmö and Nacka HI. These two clubs are regarded as the strongest sledge hockey teams in the country.
Like Norway, Japan's sledge hockey team has been more successful when compared to its able-bodied counterpart. Recently, Team Japan earned the silver medal at the 2010 Japan Para Ice Sledge Championships in Nagano. This is a side that continues to improve its style of play and fans can expect the Japanese to be a serious contender for an Olympic medal. Japan finished fifth at the Turin 2006 Paralympics.
Center Kazuhiro Takahashi and forward Daisuke Uehara are two players to watch for Team Japan. Naohiko Ishida provides a physical presence for the Japanese defense.
The Czech Republic's sledge hockey team comes into the Vancouver 2010 Paralympics as one of the underdogs, along with Estonia, Italy and South Korea. They qualified for the tournament by finishing in the top six at the 2009 Worlds.
Key players to watch for include forwards Michal Geier, Jiri Berger and Zdenek Habl. Michael Vapenka is one of the more reliable goalies you will see at this tournament. At the 2009 Worlds, Vapenka allowed just six goals in 221 minutes played for a 1.20 goals against average.
Gli Azzurri barely qualified for the Vancouver 2010 Paralympics by finishing sixth at the 2009 World Championships in Ostravia. An improving side, Italy is led by forward Florian Planker. Planker led the Azzurri with two goals and two assists on 19 shots at last year's Worlds. Andrea Chiarotti and Gianluca Cavaliere are two other players to watch out for.
Defensively, Italy is led by goalie Santino Stillitano. In 230 minutes of playing time at the 2009 Worlds, Stillitano garnered a 2.20 GAA.
Finally, we have the Koreans. This is a side that may not come into the tournament as favorites, but they do have a potent triple threat in center Seung Hwan Jung, defenceman Yong Min Lee and forward Byeong Seok Cho.
Byeong leads South Korea with four goals and one assist during the 2009 Worlds. Yong is a solid facilitator, leading the team with four assists.
Spectators can expect a goalkeeper rotation between goalies Hyuk Jun Choi and Young Hoon Jung. Korea finished seventh at the 2009 Worlds and had to compete in the qualifying tournament, where they finished second to Sweden and qualified.