Sledge hockey shock

Host team suf­fers dev­as­tat­ing semi­fi­nal loss


Ja­panese coach Ko­jin Nakakita may still have a hard time be­liev­ing it. But his quick, de­ter­mined and not-to-be de­nied sledge hockey team did the un­think­able Thurs­day af­ter­noon, beat­ing Canada 3-1 in their 2010 Par­a­lympic semi­fi­nal at UBC Thun­der­bird Arena to win the right to go for gold Satur­day against the U.S.

The Amer­i­cans de­feated Nor­way 3-0 in the other semi­fi­nal later Thurs­day. Canada will face Nor­way for bronze on Fri­day.

“My head went blank,” said Nakakita, when asked how he felt im­me­di­ately af­ter the game ended.

“I knew if we played Canada 1,000 times, we were go­ing to lose 999 times. But not this one. We had a huge loss against the U.S. (6-0 on Tues­day), but we came back very strong.”

Those per­cent­ages may be a case of sell­ing his team just a lit­tle short. The Ja­panese were quick and skilled against Canada, much bet­ter than they were against the U.S. on Tues­day.

For Canada, the loss was dev- as­tat­ing. Thir­teen of the 15 Cana­di­ans were part of the 2009 team that set­tled for bronze at worlds. They came in here want­ing noth­ing less than gold, to fol­low in the foot­steps of the men’s and women’s Olympic hockey teams that had won gold.

“We didn’t win. That’s what hap­pened,” said Cana­dian cap­tain Jean Labonte, a 40-year-old de­fence­man from Gatineau, Que., who is in his fourth and al­most cer­tainly f inal Par­a­lympics.

“We had a lot of chances. We outchanced them, but couldn’t bury it. We worked re­ally hard, but you have to hand it to Ja­pan. They played the game we ex­pected them to play. They’re a fast team. They go hard on the puck and I guess they cap­i­tal­ized on some of our plays. We lose as a team. Ev­ery­body bat­tled hard, but it just didn’t go our way.

“I think they played the game they usu­ally play. I’m won­der­ing if we didn’t beat our­selves out there. We had our chances, we had them pinned in their end quite a few times, but we couldn’t cap­i­tal­ize. Hats off to them.”

Ja­panese goalie Mit­suru Na­gase, who stud­ied at Ottawa’s Al­go­nquin Col­lege from 2000 to ’03, was ex­cep­tional. He blocked shot af­ter shot — 19 in all — and was spec­tac­u­lar as the de­fend­ing gold medal­list Cana­di­ans were press­ing for the go-ahead goal with the score 1-1 late in the third.

Af­ter a late Cana­dian flurry, the puck came into the neu­tral zone. The Ja­panese pounced on it, broke out on a three-on-one and Daisuke Ue­hara scored the game-win­ner, beat­ing Cana­dian goalie Paul Rosen to the top cor­ner at 13:47 of the third of three 15-minute pe­ri­ods. Ja­panese cap­tain Takayuki Endo, who had tied the game 1-1 with a sec­ond-pe­riod goal, scored an empty-net­ter to ice it with 16 sec­onds re­main­ing.

Marc Do­rion of Bour­get, Ont., scored Canada’s goal on a power play at 9:56 of the first.

“I was (cry­ing),” said Na­gase, 34, of the game’s dy­ing mo­ments. “I’ve been play­ing for 15 years. It’s 7 a.m. in Ja­pan. I think maybe it’s on the news. I hope so. Ja­pan beat Canada.”

On Thurs­day, af­ter all the dis­ap­point­ment, the Cana­di­ans were at least able to talk about play­ing for keeps when the tro­phy is bronze.

“We came here to win gold, but there’s still a medal for us to win,” said de­fence­man Adam Dixon, of Mis­sis­sauga, Ont. “We’re go­ing to have to gather our thoughts and play who­ever we play. It’s not the medal we want, but it’s the medal we’re go­ing to win.”

Greg West­lake en­tered the game with seven goals, but couldn’t even rent one Thurs­day. The North Van­cou­ver-born for­ward from Oakville, Ont., won­dered if the team was as fo­cused against Ja­pan as it was when it han­dled Nor­way 5-0 on Tues­day. “It was a bad game,” he said. “What hap­pened? You know our prepa­ra­tion for the Nor­way game was spot-on. We did ev­ery­thing right from the time we went to bed to the time we played the game and I don’t think we did that to­day. It has to start when you wake up in the morn­ing.

“It was a quiet bus ride over to­day. I don’t know, as an as­sis­tant cap­tain and as a proud Cana­dian hockey player, I wish there was some­thing more I could have done.”

Han­nah John­ston, Getty Im­ages

Ja­panese goalie Mit­suru Na­gase cel­e­brates semi­fi­nal tri­umph.

Lyle Stafford, Reuters

Canada’s Jean Labonte shows his dis­ap­point­ment after los­ing to Ja­pan in a semi­fi­nal sledge hockey game Thurs­day.

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