Just a few weeks into his tenure as head coach of Canada’s National Sledge Team, Ken Babey got a glimpse of where the game was going. Still new to the
sport of sledge hockey, Babey saw the Americans and Russians fly up and down the ice at the 2015 World Sledge Hockey Challenge at a tempo a tick above that
of his own team’s.
If Canada was going to continue to challenge for gold medals – there in Leduc, Alta., in future sledge hockey challenges and world championships, and
eventually at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games – something had to change.
“It was a conscious decision to find faster players,” says Babey. “In sledge hockey it’s a little different in the sense that they don’t necessarily have
to be younger; it’s a more skill-driven sport than an age-driven sport.”
As it worked out, that speed and skill came in the form of four teenagers.
James Dunn, 16, has played the sport for four years. After attending the NextGen Prospects Camp in March 2016, Dunn suited up with Canada’s National Sledge
Development Team a month later at the Défi sportif AlterGo, a three-game series against the United States.
Liam Hickey, 18, took up sledge hockey at age 10. An accomplished wheelchair basketball player – he represented Canada at both the 2015 Parapan Am Games
and 2016 Paralympic Summer Games – he earned his first National Sledge Team camp invitation in August 2013.
Zach Savage, 16, and Corbyn Smith 18, have played for 11 and 13 years, respectively, and each made his national debut with the development team in a pair
of three-game series against the United States in spring 2015.
“Age is a factor certainly when you see them in street clothes walking around,” says Babey, laughing. The foursome may have been in a bit of awe when
training camp started a few weeks ago in Bridgewater, N.S., he says, but by the end none of them looked out of place.
That’s because they feel they belong.
“It was a little bit before the selection camp last September,” says Smith, “[when] I was out playing with the guys and realized to myself, ‘I could
actually do this. I’m not too far under them.’ They’ve made me feel like a part of the team, like one of the guys.”
Is it intimidating?
“Not really,” says Dunn. “It’s just great to be on the ice with them and learn from the [veterans’] experience in the game.”
In turn, the veterans have enjoyed acting as mentors, a role that has both rejuvenated and challenged them.
The young players cracked this year’s roster because they can help the team now, says Babey, but each also has a good shot at being in the lineup come
“That helps our veteran players stay engaged and motivated because they want to be there too. It makes a good, positive, competitive environment within the
team,” he says. “It’s a win-win. As a team we’re getting faster, more skilled, and within the group you have to compete every game, every practice for a
spot in the lineup. That’s a good thing for Canada going into this year and next.”
Familiarity also helps build a roster where 20 years separates its oldest and youngest players. Many of the younger players already share a history with at
least one veteran.
Dunn grew up playing stand-up hockey. In 2012, he had his right leg amputated after being diagnosed with bone cancer. It was Tyler McGregor who introduced
him to sledge hockey.
This past spring Savage won a gold medal with Team Alberta at the first-ever Canadian Sledge Hockey Championship. His coach? Steve Arsenault.
When Smith was 12, he attended the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games through the Children’s Wish Foundation and met his favourite player, Brad Bowden.
“We’re sitting in the dressing room a year ago and, [I say] ‘Do you remember the kid you met at the Paralympics?’ says Smith. “It’s crazy. Growing up,
looking up to all of them, I would never think I would be where I am now.”
The quartet were not strangers to each other either. All but Hickey were at the NextGen Prospects Camp, and Dunn and Smith have been teammates on Sledge
Team Ontario the past few seasons.
“I like playing with all of them,” says Smith. “It kind of makes it a bit better because we’re all young and we have our own chemistry.”
That chemistry may mix on the ice as well. At last month’s training camp the coaches formed a “kid line” with Smith, Savage and Dunn. The team will start
the World Sledge Hockey Challenge with the youngsters paired off: Smith and Hickey flanking captain Greg Westlake, and Dunn and Savage playing with Antoine
Lehoux, a fellow rookie and, at age 23, the line’s elder statesman.
For all the skill – and, of course, speed – the four bring to the team there still is a relative lack of big-game experience. That’s of no concern to
“The only way anyone is going to get better is to play,” he says. “They’re going to make mistakes – that’s all part of the growth and the experience.
Sometimes you have to think big picture – as much as you want to win a game today, you play some of your younger guys so that they can get better for
“For me,” says Smith, “it’s just going out there every game and playing my hardest and doing the best I can.”
And that’s really all the coaches want – for the players to just bring their games, the ones that got them to this point to begin with.
“Like I tell those young guys,” says Babey, “you’re here because we believe you’re good enough to be here. You got to go out there and show that. I think