Maple Ridge’s Matthew Norris will be playing for his own version of the Stanley Cup next weekend.
The sledge hockey player will be the youngest on his team, at 18, to represent BC at the 2018 Sledge Hockey Canadian National Championships taking place May 11-13th at the Richmond Olympic Oval.
He joins 16 teammates from across the province who will be battling it out for gold, against teams from Alberta, Ontario and Quebec.
Norris, a Grade 12, at Samuel Robertson Technical, has been playing the game for parts of eight seasons now, and is coming into his own as a player. He got his first tryout for the Canadian National Development Team, which is a step below the national team. He didn’t make the team this year, but said it was a great experience.
Born with spina bifida, he gets around with a wheelchair and can use a walker. He tried other sports, like curling and t-ball, but his passions are wheelchair basketball and of course sledge hockey.
“I’ve come to love the sport, and how it feels to be out on the ice,” he said. “These guys have taught me a lot, like how to shoot, how to take a hit… there’s a big learning curve. I just want to keep getting better.”
He’s the smallest and lightest player on the B.C. team, and while that makes him quick to the puck, it also makes him susceptible to a t-bone collision in what can be a tough game.
“I’ve got the speed, I just can’t take the hits very well,” he said.
Norris is in his third year playing for the province, and he said the team will be looking to improve upon a fourth-place finish in Montreal last year. He said Team B.C. is slowly making up ground on other provinces in the sport.
“We’re getting there, it’s just taking time.”
Team B.C. is being coached by James Gemmell, a member of Canada’s 2018 Paralympics silver medal winning Para Ice Hockey team, which will see him go head-to-head with PyeongChang teammate Steve Arsenault as the head coach of Team Alberta.
Gemmell sees potential in Norris.
“You can see he has a real passion for the game and wants to be good at it,” he said. “He has a bright future in the game.
“He brings a lot of speed to the game, and he’s starting to see the ice a lot better.”
Gemmell explained how tough the game is. At the start, players find it tough just to stay upright on their sled while turning and stopping, while controlling the puck with their strong hand.
By the time they become elite players, they whip around the ice, crashing into opponents and ripping hard shots with either hand. To be good requires many of the same attributes of traditional hockey – being able to see the ice, making smart decisions with the puck, and being able execute plays. And sled control is the equivalent of skating skill.
He said first-time spectators are impressed by the speed and roughness of this type of hockey, and that’s the style he embraces.
“It’s a full-contact sport – you’re going out and hitting each other into the boards, and there are big open-ice hits out there. I’m pushing a really physical style of play.”
The format of the tournament is a four team round-robin. Alberta comes in as the team to beat, having won the last two national titles. Team Quebec has a strong contingent of players from the national team. And Ontario is the team that beat B.C. in the bronze medal game last year.
Gemmell said he was looking forward to seeing his team take on some of the best sledge hockey athletes from across Canada.
“After seeing some real growth in sledge hockey in B.C., we have new names on our roster this year to complement our strong returning players. I’ve been really impressed by the progress shown by our players this season and I’m excited to see how we stack up against our opponents at the nationals, and moving forward into the future,” said Gemmell.
SportAbility executive director, Ross MacDonald, said the championships were a great opportunity to catch some first-class sledge hockey action live as B.C. battles it out for gold against teams from Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. “Our BC athletes are excited to have the chance to showcase their talents on home ice, in front of friends, family and new fans,” he said.