When Cpl. Georgina Windrass of the British Army first saw the small sleds and mini sticks at the rink of the Surrey Sports and Leisure Complex, she was taken aback.
Windrass admitted, just before heading onto the ice, that she’d never heard of sledge hockey.
But after a brief instruction session, she and a group of her military colleagues were soon caught up in the excitement of the winter sport.
“It’s been an absolute ball,” said Royal Navy Chief Petty Officer Steve Brown, taking a break from the game, a smile on his face.
“We’re having such a good time, and we’ve been so welcomed. It’s been brilliant, we don’t want to go home.”
The British group – comprised of seven soldiers injured in combat, training or accidents who sustained permanent disabilities, along with three staff members – was in the Lower Mainland for the past 10 days as part of a rehabilitation program called Battle Back.
The program, run by the ministry of defence in Great Britain, encourages participation in sports to help injured military personnel re-integrate into everyday life.
“It’s not about what you can’t do, it’s what you can do,” said Maj. Dougie Peter, commanding officer of the Battle Back program, during the group’s sledge hockey session Sunday afternoon.
“It’s about realizing that there are still things they can do. Giving them the opportunity to expose them to this makes them realize what’s available to them.”
The program is new, launched in 2008 by the British military. But the concept, said Peters, is not.
“It began happening more than 60 years ago,” he said. “A suggestion during World War II was that service personnel with spinal cord injuries would benefit from sports such as horseback riding. So using sports isn’t a new concept.”
But taking it to the level of Battle Back might be.
The group’s 10-day stay included four days in Whistler for (cross-country) Nordic skiing and biathlon, and another day of alpine skiing, as well as some snowmobiling and dog sledding. And while sledge hockey was to be their last stop, the group managed to arrange a last-minute game of wheelchair curling yesterday (Tuesday) afternoon before departing for home.
Their trip was coordinated by Sian Blyth, founder of You Can Event Management in Vancouver, and British counterpart Larnie Meeking, a life skills coach specializing in assisting people with disabilities.
“We got together, and brain-stormed a bit, and put together this winter sport experience,” said Blyth.
The British contingent already had some ideas, some of them having been here a year ago to watch the Paralympic Games in Vancouver and Whistler.
To the participants, their stay on the south coast of British Columbia was one they won’t soon forget, and eagerly want to experience again.
“It was amazing… brilliant,” said Windrass of the winter activities. It was her first time cross-country skiing.
The group was amazed at the skill level needed for sledge hockey. But soldiers are competitive by nature, and eager to learn. And while they had difficulty matching the speed of their Canadian counterparts, and their puck handling was lacking, their determination and competitive spirit was demonstrated through several collisions with opponents and teammates.
“It’s a thrill, there’s the rush of adrenaline,” said Brown. “And the speed of the game… I’m on one of these (sleds) and it seems so uncontrollable. But these guys look so skillful.
“And it’s definitely full contact, I can show you the bruises.”