“I think we needed a fresh start.”
It was as simple as that. After settling for bronze at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, Canada’s National Sledge Team has seen a significant change this season: a complete overhaul of its coaching staff.
“We weren’t as successful as we wanted to be at the 2014 Paralympics,” continues Shawn Bullock, senior manager of hockey operations and men’s national teams with Hockey Canada, “We wanted to wipe the slate clean and bring in new expectations, new people and really start from scratch with everybody.”
Now leading the way behind the bench is Ken Babey, who in 27 years as the head coach of men’s hockey at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology became the winningest coach in Canadian post-secondary hockey history.
He’s joined by Ron Choules, who after two stints as a head coach in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is now in his first year as an assistant at Concordia University, and Hervé Lord, who after playing with the National Sledge Team for 19 years and competing in five Paralympic Winter Games has spent the past four seasons as an assistant coach with Canada’s National Sledge Development Team.
Babey and his staff set the tone early at the team’s first training camp last month.
“We welcomed (the players) and explained this is a new team and everybody has to earn their spot,” he says. “We haven’t named any captains; we haven’t figured out any lines yet.” There’s an overall plan, he explained, but the team is going to evolve as new strategies get put in place.
With their spots no longer secure and their roles no longer defined the players knew they had been put on notice.
“I was nervous,” says Greg Westlake, a member of Canada’s National Sledge Team since 2003. “You get used to playing for certain people. With all new people coming in you have to re-earn everything you had – ice time is not going to be given out the same way. Everything’s going to be a little bit different.”
The first difference was in how the players approached training camp.
“I think the intensity just goes up another notch because everybody’s fighting to make a name for himself,” says Westlake. The best thing, though, is everyone is given the same fresh start.
Unhappiness over a previous fitness score or last season’s offensive output could be put to rest, says Westlake. With a new regime it’s about ‘What can you do for me now?’
“It’s fun to come into that environment and nobody is looked at as a first-line guy or third-line guy,” says Westlake. “We were just there trying to make the team.”
When Hockey Canada set out to reshape its coaching staff it put a priority on hockey knowledge and experience. Its search led it to three men who had gathered both in part with Hockey Canada. Babey won gold as the head coach of Canada’s National Men’s Summer Under-18 Team at the 2000 Four Nations Cup and gold again as the assistant coach of Canada’s National Men’s Team at the 2003 Loto Cup. Choules won gold as an assistant coach with Canada’s National Men’s Summer Under-18 Team at the 2011 Memorial of Ivan Hlinka. And Lord had three Paralympic medals to his name.
Babey’s first time coaching sledge was at the team’s selection camp last November, two months before he was named head coach. He left impressed with the hard work, passion and skill level of the athletes.
He also left intrigued by the game itself.
“The best way I can explain it is it’s the same as (stand-up) hockey but very different,” he says. The basic structure of the game – forwards, defenceman, D zone – is the same, but the technical aspects – passing, shooting, skating – are all different since sledge players play the game solely with their arms.
“It changes the dynamics of the game,” says Babey. “I’m going to try some new things, but I think you have to play a shorter pass game. We’re going to learn more as we move forward.”
Babey’s best resource will be beside him on the bench in Lord. Bullock says management wanted the player’s perspective on the new coaching staff.
“(Hervé) removes all excuses for the players,” says Bullock. “He’s been through it and he can certainly hold (players) accountable when it comes to anything they might lean on for excuses when it comes to playing the game.”
Westlake played with Lord for seven seasons but admits he was unfamiliar with Babey and Choules before meeting them. He says players welcome having two new perspectives on the game.
“Sledge hockey is a pretty new sport and new high-level coaches come in and take one look at it and say, why don’t we try this, why don’t we do this,” he says. “It’s definitely increased my work ethic. I’m looking forward to earning my minutes. I’m going to work hard and make them like me.”
That first chance came at the seven-day training camp in Calgary, Alta. After coming up short in Sochi – and four years earlier in Vancouver – the team was met not only with new coaches but also with a new approach.
“The (coaches) are really taking the analytical approach to look at the game and see how we can better ourselves right from skill development to physical preparation,” says Bullock.
The camp was anything but recreational, says Westlake. It was work.
In addition to on-ice practices the players went through fitness testing and on-ice skills testing and participated in mental performance, nutrition and physical strength seminars.
“The goal with this team is to win the next Paralympics,” says Bullock, “and everything is going to be a building block toward that.”
Change is all around the team. In addition to the three new coaches, three players – Kevin Sorley, Chris Cederstrand and Bryan Sholomicki – are making their debuts with Canada’s National Sledge Team at the 2015 World Sledge Hockey Challenge and one returnee – Dominic Larocque – decided to play a new position.
“We’ve asked players to be open and flexible about their roles on the team,” says Babey. “Change is hard on people sometimes. Just keep an open mind, and, like I told the players, the cream will rise to the top.”