Canada's sledge hockey team aims to back up world ti­tle with Paralympic gold

Sherbrooke Record - - LOCAL SPORTS - By Donna Spencer THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Canada's sledge hockey vet­eran says the team can han­dle the pres­sure of be­ing the de­fend­ing world cham­pi­ons head­ing into the Paralympic Games.

When you play hockey for Canada, there's al­ways a bull's-eye on your back, ac­cord­ing to for­ward Greg West­lake.

“Let's just say I've played 300 ca­reer games. I've felt the tar­get on my back 300 times,'' the three-time Par­a­lympian said.

West­lake, from Oakville, Ont., was among 20 play­ers named Mon­day to the 2017-18 na­tional team by Hockey Canada. They were cho­sen from 30 in­vited to a se­lec­tion camp in Cal­gary last week.

The ros­ter an­nounced Mon­day is es­sen­tially the team that will wear the Maple Leaf at the 2018 Win­ter Par­a­lympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea in March.

How­ever, Paralympic ros­ters are lim­ited to 17 play­ers, in­clud­ing two goal­tenders, so there will still be some in­ter­nal com­pe­ti­tion to move up Canada's depth chart.

The goal­tenders have been fi­nal­ized with Do­minic Larocque of Que­bec City and Corbin Wat­son of Kingsville, Ont., named to the team.

“We feel we have depth now in our lineup that we can look at 20 play­ers and see who is go­ing to be the best fit in terms of the Par­a­lympics,'' head coach Ken Babey said on a con­fer­ence call.

“We think we have the mak­ings of a very good team here as we have the right mix of youth, speed, skill and ex­pe­ri­ence.

“We be­lieve these traits suit our team's style of play and give us the best chance of hav­ing a gold medal in March in 2018.''

Canada will host the Dec. 3-9 World Sledge Hockey Chal­lenge in Char­lot­te­town be­fore fac­ing the U.S. in a pre-paralympic se­ries in Fe­bru­ary.

Sev­en­teen play­ers who helped Canada beat the U.S. 4-1 and win gold in April's world cham­pi­onship are among those re­turn­ing to the team this win­ter.

“We can't sit on this win,'' Larocque said. “We're head­ing in a good di­rec­tion, but it's not done yet. A lot of work to do un­til March.''

That world cham­pi­onship at the Gangne­ung Hockey Cen­ter in Pyeongchang was also a Paralympic test event.

West­lake and for­ward Billy Bridges of Sum­mer­side, P.E.I., won Paralympic gold in 2006 in Turin, Italy.

They won bronze eight years later in Sochi, Rus­sia, with Larocque, Wat­son and other vet­er­ans Steve Arse­nault of Spruce Grove, Alta., Ot­tawa's Ben De­laney, Brad Bow­den of Or­ton, Ont., Adam Dixon of Mid­land, Ont., James Gem­mell of Ques­nel, B.C., and Tyler Mcgre­gor of For­est, Ont.

The team will spend be­tween 40 and 50 days to­gether in camps or com­pe­ti­tions prior to the Paralympic Games, said Hockey Canada se­nior man­ager of hockey op­er­a­tions Shawn Bul­lock.

The sledge team's Own The Podium fund­ing for 2017-18 is $675,000, which is an in­crease of $145,000 over the 2013-14 sea­son.

The money will be spent on camps, equip­ment and travel, in­clud­ing another trip to South Korea in Novem­ber, Bul­lock said.

“We've in­creased our re­gional camps, sup­port to the play­ers, we're look­ing at hav­ing ad­vanced equip­ment this year with sticks, buck­ets and sleds for the guys,'' he ex­plained.

“We want to make sure every­one has the right equip­ment and the best equip­ment go­ing into Pyeongchang, so that's cer­tainly go­ing to be an up­grade this year.''

“The sup­port we've got­ten from OTP is tremen­dous. Cer­tainly them know­ing the qual­ity of the pro­gram and the ded­i­cated staff and play­ers that we have, they've seen our work ethic and the plan that's in place and they like it. So they're sup­port­ing us even fur­ther.''

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