Billy Bridges is eager to showcase a swifter Team Canada at the World Sledge Hockey Challenge set for January 17-23 at the Lunenburg County Lifestyle Centre in Bridgewater, N.S.
‘’The big challenge is to keep up with the speed of the game which is so fast today,’’ said Bridges, a four-time Paralympian and a Paralympic gold medallist in 2006. ‘’When I first played, the emphasis was more on the physical game. But now the game is changing to faster guys, more finesse players and greater skill.’’
With no Paralympic Winter Games or world championships on the schedule in 2016, the World Sledge Hockey Challenge is the most important tournament this season for the Canadians. They’ll face their toughest opponents on the international stage: the U.S. - reigning world and Paralympic Games champions- as well as Sochi silver medallists Russia and 2018 Paralympic Winter Games host South Korea.
“Anytime you get a chance to put on the Team Canada jersey it’s always special,” said Bridges, the 31-year-old national team veteran from Summerside, PEI, a four-hour drive from Bridgewater. “It is definitely fun to be close to home and play internationally in front of friends and family. I know how much Maritimers have a special love for sledge hockey and how much they will support the tournament.”
Charlottetown, PEI has already hosted two successful World Sledge Hockey Challenges with Canada winning gold before a sold out crowd in 2008.
Canada’s last major gold medals in the sport were in 2013 with victories at the world championships and World Sledge Hockey Challenge in Toronto. Canada’s head coach Ken Babey agrees it would be ideal to get back on the top of the podium in Bridgewater, but he won’t disturb the grand plan which is geared towards Paralympic gold in 2018.
“Our focus is always to go in and win every game, tournament we play,” said Babey, in his second season at Team Canada’s helm. “That is the nature of our team and we need to have that competitive attitude. But at the same time we want to evaluate new players, explore new tactics, especially since this is a non-world championship or Paralympic Games year.”
Canada’s international season got underway successfully this past December with a golden performance at the Turin International Tournament. The Canadians went undefeated in five games against South Korea, Italy (prelims and final) and Norway.
‘’We focused well as a team and the players shared the workload,’’ said Babey. ‘’I was excited about the emergence of our young players and how our veterans embraced the new style of play we are trying to work on. We are becoming a faster and more skilled team than we were a year ago.’’
In Italy, Team Canada featured established veterans such as Greg Westlake and Derek Whitson as well as sparkling newcomer Dominic Cozzolino who garnered 12 points in Turin. Bridges was an offensive force as well, with four goals and six assists for 10 points in five games.
The World Sledge Hockey Challenge has been held almost every year since the inaugural tournament in 2007 in Kelowna, B.C. Canada has won five gold, two silver and one bronze in the tournament’s history. Canada beat the South Koreans 4-1 in the bronze-medal game at the last World Sledge Hockey Challenge in 2015 in Leduc, Alta.
“It’s a great opportunity to show off the skills and challenges of our sledge players to other Canadians and help grow the sport nationally,” said Babey. “This tournament is also important for our national team because it’s the time we get to compete against the best in the world and see how we stack up since the last world championships.”
Canada opens the 2016 World Sledge Hockey Challenge against Russia at 5 p.m. (Atlantic time) on Sunday, Jan. 17. The Canadians also play South Korea at 7 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 18, and the United States at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 20 in preliminary-round action.
For more information visit: www.hockeycanada.ca/wshc.