TIGERS ARCHIVE: Challenges a way of life in sledge hockey

At the start of 2015, Tigers press officer James Shaw spoke to some of the people in charge of sledge hockey in the UK – this is what happened…

Sledge hockey isn’t for the faint-hearted. But then, what is these days?

Take wheelchair rugby, for example. During the London Paralympics, it took on the moniker Murderball. Well, it was called that long before 2012 – 1976, in fact.

Murderball isn’t for tickers that are faint, or even slightly dicky.

Sledge hockey is very much the same.

Kim McGreal, from British Sledge Hockey UK, is keen to dispel myths about one of the latest disability sports: “The easiest way to describe it is by saying it’s a variant of ice hockey that was specifically designed for people with lower body impairments.”

Bit dry, that.

So what about the sweat, the blood, and even the tears? You know, the bit people like to see?

Hold on, it’s coming: “That makes it sound like it is somehow a lesser version of ice hockey, but I can guarantee that isn’t the case.”

See? Told you so.

Kim gets into her stride and with good reason, states her case: “Sledge hockey is full contact and pucks reach speeds of up to 70 mph. Players are seated in a metal sledge with two blades underneath.

“They propel themselves on the ice using twin ice hockey sticks, which are fitted with metal picks on the end.”

Ouch. Blades? Metal? Picks? They all sound painful, but at the same time, an awful lot of fun.

Kim agrees: “It is fast, furious and one of the most entertaining sports you will ever watch.”

In some ways, Kim would say that. As Communications Manager for the league, she undoubtedly has an agenda. An overwhelmingly positive one at that, however.

Karl Nicholson, meanwhile, is captain of the Manchester Phoenix sledge hockey team and a Great Britain Paralympian.

He loves the challenge of the sport: “To be on the ice and competing means you have mastered not only skating on blades one inch apart, but also the skill of controlling the puck.

“And then comes the physicality of the sport, which includes the need to play for several minutes at a time. We don’t change lines very often.”

There’s that word again. Physicality. Like it’s bigger cousin, ice hockey, sledge hockey relies on a hefty dollop of ‘physical interaction’. You know. Fighting. Biffing. Enforcing.

So it that a major part of sledge hockey?

Karl explains: “After 17 years of playing the game, I’ve seen it happen and yes, it is part of the game.

“Sledge hockey really brings a smile to my face, every time I’m on the ice.”

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That’s that, then. But let’s take a look at how sledge hockey evolved into the Paralympic sport it is today.

The game was first established in the UK in 1981, and over the years has evolved to the point where there is now a strong league.

There are five teams – Cardiff Devils, Kingston Kestrels (based in Hull), Manchester Phoenix, Peterborough Phantoms and the newest addition, Sheffield Steelkings.

The season runs during the ice hockey off-season, April – August, with the playoffs in September.

All sledge hockey in the UK is overseen by the national governing body, the British Sledge Hockey Association.

As a grass-roots organisation, the BSHA is made up of volunteers, and funding comes from sponsorships and charity donations.

Clearly, the sport faces a number of challenges on the domestic front.

Internationally, however, sledge hockey is on the verge of being a real success story.

Head Coach of the GB squad, Andrew Linton, guided his side to the verge of Paralympic qualification in Sochi.

And with the World Championships taking place in Sweden this year, he wants to provide a springboard for future success.

“Everybody involved with the GB team always looks forward to the World Championships,” he says.

“They’re a major part of our annual calendar.

“The players train really hard all season for this chance and they all want to be able to make up for that disappointing result in the qualifiers.

So, what’s missing actually, then?

Well, money – and so it seems, lots of it.

Andrew continues: “Right now, the biggest challenge that the GB team faces – and it isn’t unusual – is the funding.

“Between tournament entry fees, travel accommodation, and equipment costs, we usually need to raise over £25,000 in order to get there.”

Chicken and egg, really. What came first, success or money?

There are plans, of course, to generate the cash for the World Championships in future years.

Kim is determined to see those plans through: “Each of the players is carrying out their own activities to raise money. For example, Bryan Hackworth who is one of the GB netminders, is doing a sponsored handbike the distance of Sheffield to Heathrow Airport.

“In addition, set up a GoFundMe page where we’re offering some pretty exclusive rewards for donations, such as GB tees, hoodies and game-worn shirts.”

The Go Fund Me page is: www.gofundme.com/sweden2015. Well worth a visit, that.

And the future? Naturally enough, that includes plans on the international stage, but in the UK, those moves are already taking place.

It’s a fair bet that off the ice, there’ll be a fair bit of blood, sweat and tears.

Thanks to Scott Wiggins Photography for the use of photgraphs in this article.

For more details, go to: www.sledgehockey.co.uk.

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