NOTE: The International Paralympic Committee officially changed the name of the sport from ‘sledge hockey’ to ‘para hockey’ in November 2016. Both names are still used.
On the bus ride home following a hard-fought varsity playoff hockey battle in Niagara Falls, Ont., members of the Port Colborne High School squad proposed a rematch against Westlane Secondary School.
But for this battle, each of the players would strap into a sled instead of putting on a pair of skates.
The notion to stage the High School Sledge Hockey Challenge, hosted May 24 at the Vale Health & Wellness Centre in Port Colborne, was pitched out of a desire to share the ice with Alex Luey, who played minor hockey in Port Colborne and Niagara Falls.
Luey, who was diagnosed with osteosarcoma when he was 12 years old and underwent rotationplasty to amputate part of his right leg, has appeared in headlines over the past two years for bravely fighting the disease, and for his close bond with Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin.
Luey was pumped to find out he would get a chance to play with his friends.
“I just thought it would be cool for them to experience [para hockey],” says Luey, now a 14-year-old Grade 9 student at Westlane. “It is pretty easy to look at [para] hockey and say, ‘[Para] hockey is easy, anyone can do it’ and they can pick it up in the first minute, but then you try it and say, ‘It isn’t as easy as I thought.’”
Josh Thomson, a Grade 9 student attending the Hockey Canada Skills Academy at Westlane, agrees that trying the sled out for the first time took some adjustment
“Riding the sled for the first time wasn’t easy. It was tight like a skate – you could barely move your legs,” says Thomson.
Para hockey athletes Jessie Gregory, Kris Dutkiewicz and Kevin Rempel were on site to play in the game and to show the rookies the ropes.
Rempel, who won a world title and Paralympic bronze with Team Canada, always gets great amusement out of watching people – kids especially – try the sport for the first time.
“Kids are a blast because they have so much energy and are always trash-talking each other, and then they get out there and they’re fish out of water,” says Rempel with a laugh. “We always joke that it’s like watching car crashes in slow motion because no one knows how to stop.”
Rempel played a significant role in the organizing of the game.
“I did not have the foresight to think of all the obstacles [in planning the game],” says Shawn Coers, one of the coaches of the Port Colborne team. “Number one, we did not have enough sleds for both teams, and that is where Kevin Rempel stepped up and made it possible for this day to take place.”
Rempel was keen on getting involved in the game as has developed a relationship with Luey over the past couple of years through para hockey events. Rempel’s company, The Sledge Hockey Experience, purchased a sled for Luey when he was first getting into the sport.
“The game was super fun and super heartwarming,” says Rempel. “Getting to be on the ice with Alex and do something for him that brought a smile to his face was the least that I could do, and I hope I can do more – I just want to see that kid do well.”
Ron MacLean was also on hand to ensure Luey enjoyed a special day at the rink. The host of Hockey Night in Canada, who interviewed Luey in 2017, served as the referee.
Following the game, sitting side by side by Rempel at centre ice, MacLean said in an interview with a teacher from Westlane that he wanted to participate in the game because “Alex, just like Kevin, is one of those guys who touches you and inspires you to be a better athlete and citizen.”
Rempel and MacLean’s support means a lot to Luey.
“[Rempel] is a great guy as he always tries to spread awareness of the sport, and he works to get people with disabilities to play the sport,” says Luey. “[MacLean] is so nice as he takes the time to signs autographs and be in pictures with everyone. He actually stopped by the hospital during my most recent surgery to give me his best wishes.”
Luey and Rempel produced a great show on the ice for MacLean, and the approximately 200 students, staff and parents in the stands, as the former recorded the primary assists on both of the latter’s goals in a 2-1 win for Westlane. Luey fended off the pressure from a defenceman to make a centring pass to Rempel, and the Paralympian went top shelf.
The afternoon in Port Colborne turned out to be so special for everyone involved that plans are underway for next year.
“We have had conversations about a rematch,” says Neil Bhan, a teacher at Westlane. “I think we are going to try and incorporate [para] hockey a few times a year as part of our Hockey Canada Skills Academy, too.”
Luey is on board with that idea.
“I think it’s a great sport to showcase to students and teachers.”