The Olympics are less than a week away, which means the Paralympics are just over a month away. If the Olympics is standing backstage waiting for its cue to walk on, the Paralympics is doing pushups in the greenroom. From March 9-18, the second wave of -lympic spirit will wash over South Korea and spill into the hearts and minds and imaginations of audiences around the world. Right?! ;)
It got me thinking about sledge hockey*, so I had to call my good friend and former teammate Brad Bowden to pick his brain. I’m a little older, but he and I grew up 15 minutes away from each other and played on many teams together.
If you don’t know him, Brad’s a gold medallist several times over, in wheelchair basketball and sledge hockey. In basketball, we won Paralympic gold together in 2004 in Athens, as well as Worlds in 2006 and World Juniors in 2001. In hockey, Brad was part of Canada’s winning team in 2006 in Turin, and he’s hoping to bring home a second Paralympic gold from PyeongChang. He’s been at the top of the game for a long time.
In particular, I was curious about the crossover from basketball to hockey. This is the part where a smarter person would link to the podcast where Brad and I discuss the two sports, and he shares some great insights. Oh well; let’s bookmark that idea for a later date.
One interesting dynamic that Brad described over the phone was the way in which he borrowed from wheelchair basketball and challenged himself and other hockey players to develop parallel skills. For example, some of his stick handling innovations - behind the back, under the sled in various ways - were a response to wheelchair basketball skills that he’d picked up or observed. He was quick to give credit to other hockey players and teammates who joined in, picking up on his creative approach and making discoveries of their own.
Given his type of disability, I’ve always found it amazing that Brad has been such a dominant player in a sport with no classification system. In basketball, Brad is a 2.5, which is just about halfway between the high and low end of functional ability (in wheelchair ball, player classifications range from 1.0 to 4.5). Yet in hockey, where there’s no mandate to play athletes with a range of types and levels of disability, Brad stands out. He chalks it up to having the right type of body for sledge hockey - compact, low to the ice, long arms, strength for days (in my words) - and while this is undoubtedly true and mitigates the impact of his disability, he’s still fighting uphill against amps and other “less disabled" athletes.
This aspect of Brad’s success is perhaps under appreciated, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m fascinated by the prospect of open points competition in wheelchair basketball. As I’ve said in the past, I love what the classification system represents and accomplishes. But there’s a unique spotlight that shines on Brad in the open points, no-classification competition of sledge hockey. And while that spotlight is probably invisible to the casual, uninitiated observer, it’s bright and inspiring to me at least.
What if there were an open-points basketball tournament once a year? Would Tyler Miller’s unprecedented agility for a 1.5 and unteachable feel for spacing and timing be enough to overcome his functional disadvantage? Would Jay Nelms, a 2.5, shoot his way into the starting lineup? Would Abdi Jama as a 1.0? Would Steve Serio show that he’s the most complete 3.5 ever, or like Brad in hockey, simply be the best guy out there? Would Dave Kiley show up in a time machine from 1988 wearing a t-shirt with a goat on it, tear up his player card that says he’s a 3.0, and then destroy everyone?
These questions don’t need answers. But they’re fun to pose. And it would be even more fun, and inspiring, to try to answer them in real life.
Back to hockey. Brad’s not the only stand out sledge hockey player to grow up playing wheelchair basketball. Billy Bridges was in on it from an early age as well. Jump ahead a generation, and Liam Hickey is busy establishing himself as a two-sport star. I’m interested to know if there are any examples from other countries.
Keep an eye out for these guys in a month, because like all Paralympic sports, sledge hockey is still breaking new ground, and who knows what will happen in PyeongChang. I’ve played just enough to be a reliable witness to how uniquely difficult it is. Like wheelchair ball, there’s a lot to do and only two hands with which to do it. Unlike ball, you’re literally on edge the whole time. Playing hockey on a balance beam. With people trying to hit you.
Good luck Brad!