In France, the long search for sledge hockey pioneers

It’s always the same gestures. First of all he wears safety, his jersey and helmet like any hockey player. But then, Thierry Schneider, the paraplegic, moves from his armchair to his sled, set up on a trolley he tinkered with himself. He ties his feet inside a tub and fastens his shoes to homemade toe-clips. “This system allows me to hoist myself on ice at Emmaus for the staggering amount of 5 euros”He laughs.

By his side, this February 12, at Poitiers, other para-hockey players from Poitevin Stadium also have their sledges. Some are helped by a volunteer, others by their peers. The mix between the disabled and the able-bodied is one of the French characteristics of this discipline, which, after fifteen years of repeated failures, is still trying to develop in France.

Since 2018, the French Ice Hockey Federation (FFHG) has received delegations from the Ministry of Sports. But there are only 65 para-hockey licensees, including 35 “handisports”, distributed among a dozen clubs (Rouen, Angers, Clermont or more recently Franconville…).

One of the team's athletes, Thierry Schneider, begins to equip himself before training.  Poitiers, February 12, 2022.

While para-hockey has been part of the Paralympic Games since 1994, a new French team was formed and played its first friendly tournament in December 2021. However, there is still a long way to go before it can be expected to be included in the top tier of sports. The Paralympics, whose final is to be held in Beijing on Sunday 13 March. Particularly at the international level, it is necessary to respect the eligibility criteria, i.e. suffering from a constriction on the lower part of the body (normally either paralyzed or amputated). But the goal is ambitious: to qualify for the Games in 2026.

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The first section established in Cholet in 2004

Installed on their machines, Poatevin Stadium’s ten para-hockey players each move or rotate according to their level. They are equipped with two sticks of about 70 cm each: at one end, small metal spikes for pushing on the ice; At the other end, a customized pallet that allows for puck handling. “You must have strength in your arms”Thierry assures Schneider.

Para hockey players benefit from having a multitasking brain to combine coordination and motor skills. Contacts are supported, often “check”. “My team scores, it makes me happy”Fifty years old says. I fall, it makes me laugh, it reminds me of childhood memories when, as a kid, we used to take garbage bags to glide on the snow. ,

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Sledge hockey was invented in the 1960s by two Swedes. The discipline was introduced at the 1994 Paralympic Games in Lillehammer. The United States has won four times in seven editions.

In France, the first section was established only in 2004. In Cholet, Lillian Morinier was a volunteer with the Dogs Club at the time. “We wanted to do something for people with disabilities and we got sledge hockey”Remembers the man who is now in charge of the development of para-hockey with FFHG.

Para ice hockey players in training at the Poitiers Ice Rink on January 12, 2022.
A sled used by para-hockey athletes.

Other classes had tried to sabotage the adventure. Particularly because ambiguity reigned in whether to conduct the exercise at the national level. “Nobody really cared about it. Everything was in the draft state of the initiative”Recognizes Christian Femi, Director of Winter Parasports for the French Handysport Federation. “Paralympic policy and delegations to various federations have given new impetus”, Lillian insists on Morinier.

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“The day I’m told we’re going to the games with the para-hockey team, I’ll be in heaven”, assured Christian Fémy. The objective of the 2026 Games nonetheless seems difficult to maintain. In December 2021, the tournament in Poland ended in defeat without appeal. “It was 16.I Para Hockey Trophy. So we’re a little late. Coletas picks up Franck Cadona, the captain of the first tricolor team. In the second game, it was already better. We grew up on a weekend. ,

“We have a huge shortage of players”

Fifteen members of the France Collective are apostles. “We all take this project to heart. The federation doesn’t have a big budget right now so we can meet every monthFrank Cadona says. We manage to play more games together. , At Poitiers, in mid-February, three outside players took part in training before playing the next day in a scheduled match against Tours.

Not yet convened with the blues, but part of a larger group, Dijonnaise’s Sophie Werner epitomizes her dedication to the cause. The only para-hockey licensee of her club, she travels to France to be able to train with other clubs: “I’ll look for snow time where I can find it.”

Hughes Capdrock, responsible for the Para section of Poitvin Stadium, explains a real problem: “An hour’s worth of ice sleep on a skating rink. When you come across three disabled people to put them on the ice, often the answer is no. You have to make your own hole. » In Poitiers, President Ronan Nedelek was already conscious thanks to his “disabled father”, founder of a disabled sports club in Brittany. He did not hesitate to launch his section in 2018. Along with Claremont, the Poitwine Ice Rink is a para-hockey sports center and the second candidate to host blues matches.

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Athletes during a training session at the Poitiers Ice Rink on February 12, 2022.

Thierry Schneider first calls for expansion of the player base: “It’s good to be ambitious and make a French team. I hope it is not to the detriment of the development of practice.” he is Then Frank Cadona, who notes “Lack of players. »

The pioneers of para-hockey do not disappoint. , Whenever I meet someone in a wheelchair or on crutches, I go to meet them. I recruited five of them”Poitvin launches the captain, pointing to his fellow Raven, ” Wheelchair stolen from basketball »

In the spring, the organization of France’s first championship should give practice a little more visibility. “It would be a form of recognition”, admits Lillian Morinier. So that more and more people know that you no longer need to stand on skates to play hockey.

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About the Author: Piers Parker

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