Imagine being strapped by the legs to a low, skateboard-like contraption, then pushing yourself out onto the ice using a pair of sticks.
Now imagine Gary. Like me, Gary is strapped to a para ice hockey sledge — but Gary is skating around at speed. He is in his element. The ice screeches in fright as his blades sweep to a stop. Gary toys with the puck like a cat with a mouse, then ‘BANG’ — shoots for goal and narrowly misses, the puck slamming into the sideboard.
As it does, I can’t help but think of a line from Dodgeball. ‘If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.’ Like flying wrenches, heavy pucks are great motivation for moving — fast.
Fortunately, para ice hockey is motivational in other ways. It’s a cardio-core-arms workout in one.
And it’s pretty good fun.
Well, at least at the level we’re playing at the ‘come and try’ day in Docklands. ‘Like an under-6s soccer match’ quips a fellow novice. Wild-eyed with beaming smiles, we boof into each other and chase the puck slowly, but ever so hungrily.
This is my year to try new things — and para ice hockey, as it turns out, is a very ‘new thing’.
The Australian Para Ice Hockey Association formed late last year with sponsorship from the Australian Paralympic Committee and Ice Sports Australia. Invented in the early 1960s by men at a rehabilitation centre in Sweden, it’s now played competitively in dozens of countries.
Australia has recently established teams in Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia, and presumably the association hopes to send a national team to the next Paralympics.
I’m met at the entrance of the arena and escorted upstairs. Once the preliminaries are out of the way, Gary Farmer (an amputee athlete who has represented the UK at the Paralympics) takes to the whiteboard.
It’s like a scene in an American movie where the coach talks tactics. Across a rectangle he draws arcs and lines with arrows in green and blue. Literally everything is new to me — I’ve never played hockey, or ice hockey, and I’ve never seen it on TV — but I get the gist. Put puck in goal. Don’t tip over. And mind your sticks. (The dual-purpose wooden sticks have a sharp ‘pick’ end for pushing and manoeuvring your sledge, and a hooked end for puck handling.)
Time to get kitted up. We’re all handed a helmet, elbow pads and gloves. Others, who looked more seasoned, add shoulder pads and shin guards to their Michelin-man ensemble. (Gulp. You don’t wear this amount of protective plastic because you might get hit.)
‘You don’t wear this amount of protective plastic because you might get hit’
We start with exercises aimed at gaining control of the sledges. These are similar to those created by the men in the Swedish rehab centre — essentially, sledges, but with ice-hockey skate blades on the bottom, which allow for the puck to pass underneath.
First exercise is to use the sticks to skate up, circle around an orange cone and skate back. Simple? Hardly. Turning the sledge involves tilting sideways, pushing with the stick and using your core (if you have one) to curve it around the cone. I don’t have a lot of strength in my core, and just manage not to fall on top of the cone.
Next, we are to skate towards the centre, receive a puck and shoot it at a net. Unfortunately, I can’t quite hear when these instructions are being relayed. I skate up, receive the puck and promptly return it to the bewildered training assistant.
I turn and skate back very happy with myself, try to turn, but tip onto the ice, my sledge at a 45-degree angle. Pride before the fall? I can’t right myself, and someone has to come and help me get vertical. (Mental note: work on that core!)
Next up, a proper game. I’d read with fear before coming that para ice hockey was ‘brutal’ and ‘fast-paced’. Fortunately, ‘bumpy’ and ‘meandering’ is a better description for our level.
Gary skates around assisting the flow of the game, passing and shooting the puck. We bump and hustle and laugh at the oddness of it all — grown men and women, dressed like Michelin men, sliding around four inches from ice, while outside it’s 34 degrees.
A few precious goals are scored, and we tap our sticks on the ice — a rousing sound, like people banging the boundary signs at the footy.
All in all, it’s a cool experience. As well as an appreciation for winter para sport, it was a chance to experience an equivalent to the thrills, spills and slapstick of junior sport — something I never really got into when I was a kid. I was into non-contact sports, like skateboarding, and intense grey-lead-pencil drawing.
I may not return to the ice, but I enjoyed watching the para hockey final in the Pyeongchang Winter Paralympics.
It was disappointing to see the USA beat Canada 2-1 in overtime but I had a new appreciation for the skill and talent on display.
‘Come and try’ Para Ice hockey is at the O’Brien Group Arena, Docklands on April 1 and April 15.