It has a new handle.
But it promises three times the fun and intensity.
The Canadian Tire Para Hockey Cup, which begins Sunday at the Western Fair Sports Centre, was called the World Sledge Hockey Challenge in its first local visit seven years ago.
Now it features all three medalists from the 2018 Paralympics and a host Canadian team still smarting after its 2-1 overtime loss to the United States in the gold-medal final last winter at South Korea.
“With the three-team format, we’ll probably see Canada and the U.S. play each other three times in the week,” organizing committee chair Todd Sargeant said. “That’s the key matchup. The 2011 tournament raised our profile and we’re seeing an excellent response in the community. This sport has a presence in the city it didn’t have before.
“It was good in ’11 too, compared to other jurisdictions, and we’re looking for it to be through the roof this time.”
Canada captured gold here seven years ago, but the U.S. has won the last four instalments. There are six players making their London return – Canadians Corbin Watson, Billy Bridges and Dominic Larocque (then a forward, now a goalie) and Americans Steve Cash, Josh Pauls and Kevin McKee.
There are some local stars too, in Tyler McGregor of Forest and Wallacetown teen James Dunn. McGregor, a scoring star for Canada, played top-level minor hockey before his left leg was amputated due to spindle cell sarcoma.
“It’s a huge benefit to come into this with hockey experience,” Sargeant said. “You understand the game and where to go, when to go and why to go. Tyler is the best example. He hopped on the ice the first day and I remember sitting on the side of the rink watching him and literally in five minutes, you could tell he was going to be an elite athlete. You didn’t know he would go on to play on the national team, but you knew right there he would be really good.”
Sledge hockey’s roots go back in the city to a program the Thames Valley Children’s Centre started over 30 years ago as a form of recreational therapy for children with disabilities. Within months, they looked for a community-based structure and that’s when Sargeant and Sigmund Bernat stepped in to assist.
The London Blizzard is among the best sledge organizations in Canada and Sargeant went on to run the national development team for four years.
“We’ve had a real good connection with Hockey Canada and a pipeline of strong players,” Sargeant said. “You look at this tournament, (it) has been held in Ontario three times – and twice in London. We have this down to a science. We’ve held international events before and Tourism London is great. We know the off-ice experience will be great for the athletes and we’re confident the on-ice experience will be second to none for the fans.”
The legacy from the 2011 event helped make Western Fair accommodating to para hockey tournaments. This time the funds will go toward purchasing equipment (largely sledges) and upgrading the game locally.
The Cup has struck a partnership with the Thames Valley District School Board to educate about the game and bring in students for the two weekday afternoon games.
These games signal the start of the new four-year cycle toward the 2022 Paralympics in Beijing, China.
It’s a long time to wait for Canadian revenge – so they’ll try to start by getting a few jabs in now on home ice in London.
Players to watch
Steve Cash, United States
The three-time Paralympic Games champ is considered the world’s best goalie. Eight years ago in Vancouver he didn’t allow a goal, recording five shutouts. This year, the 29-year-old from St. Louis surrendered just one goal and had two shutouts in South Korea.
Tyler McGregor, Canada
The 24-year-old from Forest served as alternate captain on Canada’s silver medal team at the Paralympic Games in South Korea and led the team in scoring with eight goals and 13 points in five games. He made his national team debut in 2012.
James Dunn, Canada
The 18-year-old from Wallacetown is an up-and-comer on the national squad and was the youngest competitor on the silver-medal team last winter in Pyeongchang. He and McGregor met while undergoing cancer treatments in London.
Billy Bridges, Canada
The 34-year-old veteran is one of three current Canadians remaining from the 2011 World Sledge Hockey Challenge in London. He scored the country’s only goal in 2-1 overtime final loss to the United States in Pyeongchang.
Declan Farmer, United States
The 21-year-old Tampa native and Princeton University student led the 2018 Paralympic Games in scoring with 11 goals and 17 points in five games. He is a two-time Paralympic gold medallist and was named best disabled athlete at the 2014 ESPY Awards.
Para Hockey Cup
All games at Western Fair Sports Centre
Sunday: Korea vs. Canada, 7 p.m.
Monday: Canada vs. U.S, 7 p.m.
Tuesday: Korea vs. U.S., 7 p.m.
Wednesday: Canada vs. Korea, noon
Thursday: U.S. vs. Canada, 7 p.m.
Friday: U.S. vs. Korea, noon
Saturday: Gold medal game (first vs. second), 4 p.m.
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