WREN promotion’s first sledge received by aspiring paralympian

Ian Dmytriw’s dream is to one day emulate his hero Billy Bridges and play in the Paralympic Winter Games for Canada.

Bridges is noted among international sledge hockey players for his hard shot. Fifteen-year-old Ian said one reason Bridges is able to get the puck past goaltenders is his sledge.

“The sledge’s riser helps on turns, for balance and speed, and it gives you more leverage to shoot the puck,” said Ian, showing an enthusiastic envy for the winner of a gold medal at the Torino Paralympic Winter Games in 2006. (Canada was the gold medal favourites in Vancouver this year, but unfortunately had to settle for fourth place.) 

Sledge hockey players use two sticks that look like scaled-down versions of regular hockey sticks. While it is obvious what end of the stick is used to shot and pass the puck, the other end of each stick has metal prongs that are used by sledge hockey players to propel themselves on the ice surface.

Ian’s dream of Olympic glory came a little closer to realization when he received the gift of a new sledge similar to the one used by Bridges in Vancouver. 

The Winnipeg Real Estate News Power Play Goal promotion raised $2,300 this year, which will be used to purchase Olympic-class sledges for three fortunate recipients. At Manitoba Moose home games, $100 was donated by the WREN to the Children’s Rehabilitation Foundation when a power play goal was scored  by the American Hockey League Team. This year, 21 power play goals were scored by the Moose during their 40 home games.

The foundation selects the sledge recipients: Ian was the first to receive a sledge, while the second is 13-year-old Garnet. The recipient of the third sledge — made possible by a $200 donation by WinnipegREALTORS® to add to the power play goal total — is yet to be announced. 

Each sledge costs nearly $800.

Ian received his new sledge during a special presentation at last Monday’s Moose play-off game against the Bulldogs, which the Moose won 7-2.

Anyone who watched Canada play during the recent Paralympics is well aware that sledge hockey is not for the faint of heart. Fierce body checks are common and players crash into each other with jarring impact.

Ian, who plays in the junior league sponsored by Sledge Hockey Manitoba, said he’s not afraid to mix it up in the corners. 

The right-winger said his strengths on the ice are his physical play and passing.

“If I have to be physical, I can be physical,” he added. “I’m not afraid to be hit, and to hit. That’s the kind of thing that helps you out in sledge hockey.”

As the oldest player in the junior program, Ian added, he has taken on the role of protecting the younger players from the bruisers on other teams.

“One of the reasons he’s so good at the sport is his upper body strength,” said Julie Huish, Ian’s occupational therapist at the Rehabilitation Centre for Children.  

A glance at Ian reveals the truth of her words — his shoulders are broad and his arms are extremely well-developed.

Ian has some use of his legs, but is unable to stand on his own, so he relies upon a wheelchair for mobility, which he easily and skillfully manoeuvred through the MTS Centre during the Moose playoff game. 

A sledge requires the same power and skill used by Ian when propelling his wheelchair. There are differences between the two pieces of equipment, the most obvious being the two blades at the rear of his new sledge. In effect, players are strapped into an apparatus that appears to be little more than a small reinforced plastic seat with two relatively thin metal pipes ending at a slight cage in the front. 

But, the modern sledge is a well-engineered apparatus that gives players greater mobility than was even thought possible a few years ago.

Ian, who has been playing sledge hockey for three and a half years, said Bridges was noticed by Canadian team officials at the young age of 13, and selected for the national team when just 14 years old.

“You can be really good at 13 and they take you for the development league,” said the aspiring Olympian.

So far, no Manitoban has made Canada’s national sledge hockey team, but that is primarily due to the brief time the sport has been played in Manitoba, said Ian’s father Gord.

“It’s not an easy sport,” he added. “But Sledge Hockey Manitoba’s goal is to develop competitive players who will be able to play at a higher level.”

The success of the goal is shown by the fact that the Manitoba Moose — named after the AHL team — recently won the Western Canada Sledge Hockey Championship in Edmonton.

Sledge hockey in Manitoba got off to a slow start in the mid-1980s when the Society for Manitobans with Disabilities (SMD) obtained the first equipment. The sledges were old-style steel clunkers that were extremely cumbersome to handle.

“It’s no wonder the sport didn’t get going then,” said Gord.

In 2007, Jon Derry and Bill Muloin established Sledge Hockey Manitoba. The newly-created group was able to purchase new equipment with the help of the SMD and Hockey Canada.

“It then took off,” said Gord.

From just six players in 2007, there are now 40 players.

With the new equipment, two leagues were established — one for juniors aged under 18 and a senior program for those 18 and over. 

The difficulty for Manitoba sledge hockey players is that unless they can afford the expensive equipment, players have to rely upon sharing the SMD sledges in order to participate. 

“One of the challenges is carting the sledges all about the city,” said Gord, “Depending upon who shows up, we’re always adjusting equipment to ensure everyone gets a chance to play. 

“It’s quite a production to get the 14 or 15 kids on the ice and you only have an hour to play,” he added. “The city doesn’t make any exceptions.”

Ian plays out of the Fort Richmond Community Centre, but occasionally plays at the MTS Centre. Sledge Hockey Manitoba has received a grant from True North, which owns and operates the arena, for free ice time.

Meanwhile, the teenage sledge hockey player wholeheartedly encourages others to join him on the ice. 

“We’re always looking for people,” he said. “Check it out. You’ll love it!”

His father, while peering at his son’s new sledge, said it will take “six or seven tries before he really learns to control it, but he’s at that level where he really has a chance to compete at a higher level.”

What message does Ian want to relay about sledge hockey?

“It’s a blast!” he exclaimed with a wide grin, revealing his enthusiasm for the sport.