Tired of kicking a football around? Has the thrill of two wheels faded since last summer’s cycling success? Then why not turn your hand to something altogether different – ice sledge hockey.
With Manchester Phoenix welcoming new players for their recently formed sledge team next month, MM took to the ice to see what the game was all about.
The Phoenix sledge team – set up eight months ago as an addition to their main ice hockey team – comprises a mixture of physical abilities and four Great Britain players.
With the side entering the British Sledge Hockey League, team coach Pete Hagan wants to attract new stars with six weeks of open sessions running from mid-February.
“It’s totally inclusive. Disabled, able-bodied, you all start at the same level,” he said.
“As you go up the standard, on the international and European stage that’s when the disability comes into things, but other than that, it’s open to anyone.
“We’re encouraging anyone to come down and give it a go. The first four weeks will be free of charge.”
Invented in the 1960s at a rehabilitation centre in Sweden, the sport is designed to allow people with a physical disability to play ice hockey using specially designed sledges.
First introduced to the Paralympic movement at Lillehammer in 1994, it has since become one of the games’ most popular sports.
And although only athletes with a permanent lower body impairment are eligible to compete nationally, the sport is also open to able-bodied players at lower levels.
With six players per team, including goalkeepers, on the ice at any time, the game is played at a ferocious pace.
Keen for me to experience the sport first-hand, Pete invited me to Widnes ice rink for team training.
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My only vague link to the sport was having played hockey, but that was going to be useless once out on a slippery sheet of ice.
Then there was the small issue of being strapped into a sledge balancing on a single blade.
And that was all before actually playing the game, knocking the puck around using two playing sticks, which also double up as a way of propelling yourself along the ice.
But Pete – who admitted his views of the game had completely changed since being asked to start coaching it last summer – explained the attraction of the sport.
“I had never heard of the sport, let alone coached it,” he said. “I turned up completely oblivious to what I was letting myself in for.
“If I’m honest I was hesitant about doing it, freezing cold late after work. But now I am totally obsessed with it. I have fallen in love with the sport.
“The guys are all mental, but it’s a lot of fun. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Kitted up in the obligatory knee, elbow and chest pads, gloves and helmet, I was tentatively pushed out on the ice.
It is a sport that certainly involves strength, patience and perseverance as I found myself toppling over in my sledge on several occasions.
But by the end, I had built up enough confidence to skate over the ice, attempting to knock the puck around and try a few shots on goal.
No speed demon when compared to the rest of the team who appeared so at ease on the ice, I certainly enjoyed the unusual experience, and the feeling of gliding over the ice.
With international games lasting three periods of 15 minutes, and league games lasting just the two periods, it is not difficult to see how demanding the sport is.
But despite players being strapped into sledges, there is still opportunity for the physicality so often associated with the game of ice hockey.
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Double below the knee amputee, Anthony Booth – sledge hockey player for the Phoenix and Great Britain – explained the sport gave disabled people a way to express themselves.
“It’s great fun and a good laugh,” said the 36-year-old, who competed at the 1998 Nagano Winter Paralympics in Japan.
“Once you are out there on the ice, you are free to do what you want.
“There’s nothing like it, it’s the only full contact sport for disabled people.”
However he was equally keen to see people of all physical abilities try out the sport, suggesting it was a challenging alternative to ice hockey.
“For someone who is able-bodied, they are walking about all the time,” he added.
“It’s nothing new to then get on the ice and skate, but this is something a bit different sliding around on a sledge.
“I am sure people will enjoy it if they come along.”
Having played a series of challenge matches before Christmas, the sledge team start their league campaign later in the year during the regular ice hockey’s close season.
Training twice weekly at Altrincham and Widnes ice rink, they are aiming to win the league title at the first time of asking.
But regardless of whether you possess the skill to play at that level or not, ice sledge hockey certainly makes for a fun alternative to other mainstream sports.
Anyone interested in attending the taster sessions should contact Pete Hagan on 07709086586 or [email protected]
Picture courtesy of Richard Allan, with thanks.