“It’s an opportunity for me to play hockey, plus I get to play with some of my friends and my brother,” says Bryson, who also plays wheelchair basketball. One day, he hopes to follow in the footsteps of his idol Billy Bridges, a star Canadian sledge hockey and wheelchair basketball athlete, and represent his country at the Paralympics.
“It’s pretty easy once you try it a few times,” Bryson continues. “Balancing isn’t that hard and other than that it’s just like normal hockey.”
Sledge hockey has nearly identical rules and concepts as hockey. Instead of skating standing up, participants sit on their skates in an adaptive device called a sled. The sled has two skate blades and a runner in front to form a tripod. Finally, instead of using one stick, sledge hockey athletes use two shortened ones. Each stick has a blade on one end and a pick on the other to help athletes propel themselves across the ice.
Bryson and Tanner’s parents, Bobbi and Rick, were the guiding forces in getting this sledge hockey team off the ground. There were already sledge hockey teams in Kindersley and Bruno, but the distance was too great for the family, who lives on an acreage outside of Pilot Butte.
Bobbi and Rick soon learned that the process of forming a sledge hockey team would be a costly affair. To that end, they applied for and received numerous grants. Two of these grants, totalling $16,150, came from Saskatchewan Sport Inc. as part of its adaptive sport grants program, helping the parents purchase sledge hockey sledges and stick sets and assisting them with rental fees, coaching costs, training, etc. The financial support allowed the Avengers to begin practicing in the fall of 2012.
“If they wouldn’t have had this grant, we couldn’t have done it,” Bobbi said. “The physical fitness people with disabilities can get is really limited, so it’s great for them to be able to get out there, meet other kids with disabilities and play with able-bodied kids.
Rick is the team’s main coach and Curtis Hunt, former coach of the Western Hockey League’s Regina Pats and assistant coach of the Canadian men’s sledge hockey team, is one of the other coaches who lend a hand. There is currently no league for the Avengers to compete in. For now, their practices – Sundays, 1:15-2:15 p.m. at the Mahon – are the main time when they come together to work on their technique and scrimmage.
But thanks to the grant, it’s a promising start for the province’s sledge hockey movement, which now also includes a new team in Saskatoon/Martensville.
According to Michelle Dezell, manager of athlete services for Sask. Sport and Canadian Sport Centre Saskatchewan, that’s exactly the point of the adaptive grant programs – to get leagues started up and promote physical activity.
“It’s just an opportunity to enhance some of the good work that’s being done by our provincial sport governing bodies,” Dezell said.
In 2011, the adaptive sport equipment and club development grants were introduced in Saskatchewan, allowing provincial sports clubs to purchase specialized equipment and aiding those who want to form a new team for people with disabilities. Through financial contributions from the Saskatchewan Lotteries Trust Fund for
A total of $289,702 has been distributed through the grants since the fall of 2011, showing that disabled athletes want to get active and have the right programs in place. Since only three per cent of Canadians with a disability are involved in organized sport, according to a 2001 Statistics Canada survey, and Saskatchewan has the second highest rate in Canada of people who live with a disability at 14.5 per cent, it would seem to be a positive step forward.
“The feedback has been very positive,” Dezell said. “If we can involve kids as participants, coaches, volunteers – people with disabilities will engage in the social community as well as the physical activity community and really that’s the benefit of sport: social engagement, happier, more confident individuals and healthier individuals.”
“If we can involve kids as participants, coaches, volunteers – people with disabilities will engage in the social community as well as the physical activity community and really that’s the benefit of sport." - Michelle Dezell, manager of athlete services for Sask. Sport and Canadian Sport Centre Saskatchewan
Jeff Whiting, a provincial coach with the Saskatchewan Ski Association’s disabled skiing program, has seen the benefit sport can have for athletes with disabilities.
“Over the years we’ve seen that a lot of athletes develop better social skills and by being physically active they have less sickness and are stronger,” Whiting said. “They’re able to do transfers a lot easier – getting in and out of the bathtub or getting in and out of vehicles.”
Over the last couple of years, there has been a movement to develop a stronger para-nordic skiing presence in the province. Para-nordic skiing includes cross-country skiing and biathlon for people with a physical/intellectual impairment as defined by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).
The movement has been aided by $6,610 from the adaptive sport grants. Using a portion of this money, Sask. Ski was able to bring in Saskatoon’s Colette Bourgonje as an instructor. Bourgonje is a world champion sit-skier and has won numerous Paralympic medals.
“She’s got a good track record and she’s able to go into an audience with a whole bunch of medals and say, ‘Look what I can do,’ ” Whiting said. “Having that known face as part of the program – she has a street named after her (Bourgonje Crescent) – makes a difference.”
Bourgonje, 51, was happy to offer her expertise. After all, she has achieved a lot thanks to the sport. She who grew up in Porcupine Plain and was an established cross-country runner before a car accident in 1980 left her paralysed at the mid-back level. Soon, she began competing and excelling at sit-ski. In 2010. she earned a Canadian Disability Hall of Fame nod.
“What [sit skiing] really helped me to do was continue down the path that I was going in an able-bodied life,” Bourgonje said. “Cross-country skiing has given me the same satisfaction and even more than I’d already found with cross-country running. It’s opened many doors and I’ve met many wonderful people from across the world in various countries.
“I’ve skied in a cross-country tunnel in Finland; I skied for eight summers in New Zealand on top of a mountain; I’ve had experiences that have been totally amazing. It’s definitely opened many doors in my life and finding some future national team members that can have that same experience is really what I’m hoping can happen.”
So far, the efforts seem to be working. Training sessions in the province now often draw 15 to 20 athletes.
“What’s inspiring most of all is introducing the sport to people that didn’t know they could get equipment in Saskatchewan,” Bourgonje said. “I think that’s really awesome.
“They try it and say, ‘Wow this is great. I really enjoy it.’ From what I’ve seen, it can absolutely increase their quality of life.”
THE SASK. ADAPTIVE SPORT GRANTS RECIPIENTS
Saskatchewan Wheelchair Rugby – $40,000: wheelchair rugby chairs
Saskatchewan Sailing Clubs Association – $32,000: sailboat and portable ramp to transfer participant and launch boat
Regina Paratroopers WC Basketball Club – $24,925: wheelchair basketball chairs, basketballs and transportation and training costs for coaches clinic
Club 99 Wheelchair Basketball Club – $24,000: wheelchair basketball chairs, facility rental, tournament hosting, uniforms and advertising/promotion
Regina Wheelchair Racing Club – $23,000: racing wheelchairs, rollers, facility rental, coach certification and honorarium, sport science and equipment maintenance
Pilot Butte Sledge Hockey Club – $16,150: sledge hockey sledges and stick sets, rental fees, coaching cost and training, insurance and advertising
NRG Wheelchair Basketball Club – $15,000: wheelchair basketball chairs
Martensville Sledge Hockey Club – $14,860: sledge hockey sledges and stick sets, rental fees, coaching cost and training, insurance and advertising
Saskatchewan Ski Association, Ski for the Disabled – $13,610: nordic sit skis, coach training advertising, recruitment and facility rental
Golf Saskatchewan – $13,000: solo-rider golf cart
Cyclones Road and Track Club – $12,500: wheelchair racing chairs, coach training, promotion, recruitment and club development.
Bruno T-Birds Sledge Hockey Club – $10,000: sledge hockey sledges and stick sets, ice rental, travel and coach training
Saskatchewan Wheelchair Sports Association – $10,000: sport chairs for school demos
Regina Handcycle Club – $7,800: off-road handcycle
Canoe/Kayak Saskatchewan – $7,000: kayak, chair cushions and adaptive paddle grips
Saskatchewan Curling Association – $6,700: delivery sticks, portable ramp instructors, ice rental and advertisement
Regina Wheelchair Rugby Club – $5,000: wheelchair rugby chair
Saskatoon Racing Canoe Club – $5,000: kayaks, paddles, seats and learn-to-kayak program
Kindersley Sledge Hockey Club – $4,200: sledge hockey sledges and chairs
Wascana Racing Canoe Club – $2,307: ergometer for rehabilitation centres, coach training and learn-to-kayak program
Trailblazers XC Ski – $1,690: cross-country ski poles
DevelopmentalEducationVickersSchool – $960: facility rental and instructor’s wages
Jonathan Hamelin is a fourth-year journalism student at the University of Regina. To view more of his work, visit his website.