BRIDGEWATER – Four of the top para hockey teams in the world will do battle at the 14th Para Hockey Cup in Bridgewater beginning on Sunday.
All the action in the 10-game tournament begins Nov. 27, winding up with the gold medal final Dec. 3. Teams competing will be from Canada, U.S., Czechia and Italy. TSN will broadcast the gold medal game.
The event was scheduled to have been played in 2020, then 2021, but due to COVID-19 protocols, it had to be cancelled.
Single tickets and ticket packages can be purchased at the Lunenburg County Lifestyle Centre or online at ticketpro.ca.
This event was held in 2016 in Bridgewater with great success. The local para hockey team, now called the South Shore ICE Storm was started that year, as well, more than $900,000 in economic activity occurred in the province because of this.
Since then, the national men's and women's teams have both held training camps and exhibition games in Bridgewater.
Kent Walsh, co-chair of the organizing committee, said that they are ready for the event, with close to 80 volunteers signed up to help things go smoothly. He also said more than 900 students from various schools will be attending a game Nov. 28 and there are arrangements being made to get some players out to other schools as well.
He is also hoping to get a Team Canada practice opened-up to allow for fans to interact with some of the players.
Also of note, members of the local South Shore ICE Storm para hockey team will perform the official puck drop at the beginning of each game.
Coach Russ Herrington has taken over the reins as head coach of the Team Canada national men's team this year, after serving as the program's assistant for the past seven years. He looks forward to coming back to Bridgewater.
"We've always been welcomed warmly with open arms, we've been really supported well and we love coming down east," he said. "We've always had a great experience in Bridgewater and we expect more of the same come the end of this month."
Although there are no Nova Scotians on the team, there are a couple of Atlantic Canadians including veteran Liam Hickey from Newfoundland and rookie Jacob Leblanc hails from New Brunswick.
He said that fans can expect the team to put in a lot of "hard work, an honest solid effort with a team-first attitude. Something that the fans in Bridgewater and across Canada will be proud to watch."
Herrington said the team has done a few things different this year by expanding their pool of players and stretching out the evaluation process which allows for more new players to be involved in the program.
"The returning guys have really done a good job of taking on leadership and mentorship roles with the new guys in the program and the returnees have certainly brought a lot of energy and willingness to look at things a different way than what we maybe have done in the past. It's going to be a bit of a slow build, but we're excited with the trajectory that we're on," he said.
The Canada - U.S. rivalry has always been big in stand-up hockey and it is the same situation in para hockey with the majority of finals featuring these two teams. In fact, the two teams have met in the last 12 major event finals, with the U.S. winning the last eight over Canada.
Although the match-up may be at the front of the mind of most fans, Herrington said that at least for this tournament, that won't be his.
"I think we're going to try and keep the focus on ourselves. We really had a push early on in terms of becoming better defensively as a team and really working on becoming efficient with our puck retrievals and breakouts. This will be our main focus," he said.
"If we take the attitude where our offense starts as a result of our defensive commitment that will give us a chance to win every game."
He added that when playing a team as experienced and as offensively-gifted as the U.S. you have to commit defensively and try and limit opportunities for the opposition.
Veteran Liam Hickey of Newfoundland, an assistant captain with the club, is excited about the return trip to Bridgewater.
"Obviously, we love it there. It's a pretty special place to go back to and we've built up a bit of a following there and we know that the fans love having us," he said.
"Kids love to come out and watch and we can't wait to get back there."
With Herrington taking over as head coach bringing with him a new style and new system, along with a lot of rookies joining the team this year, Hickey said that they are in a bit of a rebuilding mode, but he sees great potential for the team.
"We have a lot of potential. We're really excited to just kind of build off the silver medal that we won in Beijing, but with such a new group we have a lot to work on, but it's really exciting to see how much potential we have as a squad."
Team Canada lost to Team U.S. in the gold medal final at the Paralympics held earlier this year.
He said the goal of any tournament for Team Canada is always to win a gold medal, but does recognize that they need to continue to improve on working as a team and getting better as they work towards the world championships and the next Paralympics.
The 24-year-old defenceman was born without a femur in his right leg, but that hasn't slowed him down. He began playing para hockey at 10 years old and began playing with the local team in St. Johns.
He is a dual-sport athlete and competed for the Team Canada wheelchair basketball as well. He began his international career in the sport, playing in the Men's U23s world championship in 2013. He also played in the 2015 Parapan American Games and the 2016 Paralympic Games.
Since then, he has focused on para hockey and has been an integral part of the team.