When it comes to hockey, Claire Buchanan is willing to go the extra mile to play.
Last year, when the 30-year-old athlete embraced the news that her wife was expecting their first baby, suddenly her 25 hours a week schedule as a grocer was inadequate. She doubled up as an Uber driver, took a semester off school, and left her paid position playing wheelchair basketball for the year.
But quitting sledge hockey was not a compromise she would make.
“I don’t want to fall into a hole where there would come a point where I can’t play hockey. I don’t want that to happen. It’s who I am, there’s no other way of explaining it,” said Buchanan, who has been on the Canadian women's sledge hockey team for three years, currently playing defence. Buchanan, who was born with a birth defect called spina bifida, has limited movement of her legs and so she uses a wheelchair in her daily life.
In the almost 10 years since the national women’s team originated, it has been striving for acceptance and admission into Canada’s most celebrated sports culture.
The challenge the players face now is two-fold: expand the sport internationally to receive Paralympic certification, and gain recognition from Hockey Canada as a national program.
The problem is that one can’t happen without the other.
“I don’t want to fall into a hole where there comes a point where I can’t play hockey.” Claire Buchanan, Player
Because women’s sledge hockey is not an official Paralympic sport, the Canadian team is not yet eligible for the same benefits from Hockey Canada as its male counterpart. Hockey Canada gives athletes who qualify full funding to play and train.
So for the women to play, they have to pay out of pocket, some paying upwards of $15,000 per season, which typically extends eight months.
“It’s sort of a catch-22 with everything. In order for the sport to grow, the sport needs to be funded. In order to be funded, the sport needs to grow. That’s where we’re kind of stuck,” said Jessica Matassa, a two-time bronze Paralympic medalist in wheelchair track racing who’s been on the women’s sledge hockey team for two years.
Sledge hockey, officially known as para-ice hockey, was adapted from the traditional sport to allow those with lower-body physical disabilities to play. Players sit on specifically designed sleds balancing on two long skate blades. Using shortened versions of hockey sticks, known as picks, the players are able to manoeuvre themselves around the rink, passing the puck underneath the sled.
Created in 1982, it debuted as a male-only sport at the Paralympics in 1994. Canada’s official men’s team began in 2004. Kick-starting the women’s game, on the other hand, has taken longer.
“Although women’s sledge hockey is not presently recognized as an International Paralympic Committee discipline, our organization currently provides the women’s sledge hockey team with jerseys, IPC registration, and Hockey Canada player insurance,” said Lisa Dornan, Hockey Canada’s director of communications. In addition, the organization supports the team with grant opportunities and IPC development prospects.
These resources have proved to be valuable, team president Janice Coulter said.
“We have a good relationship with them,” Coulter said. “Yes, I would like money, because it’s very difficult to fund a national team and develop a sport without funding. But I also recognize that if they were to access money from Sport Canada, it puts them in a position of responsibility to take care of us too.”
“It’s definitely like we are stuck between a rock and a hard place here.” Christina Picton, Team captain
Currently there are three national teams worldwide – Team Canada, Team USA, and Team Europe, comprising five European countries. Each of these national teams are working together to try to expand the sport into countries such as Norway, South Korea and Japan.
Under IPC rules, women’s sledge hockey needs to expand to at least eight individual countries and three IPC regions in order to be considered for inclusion in the Paralympic Winter Games.
“It’s definitely like we are stuck between a rock and a hard place here. But I mean, if we’re not going to do it, who will?” said Christina Picton, the team’s captain.
Pay to play: the cost of women’s sledge hockey
Nandini Sharma, a full-time student from Ontario, who played forward last year, describes paying upwards of $9,000 to play on the team for the 2016-17 season. Here is her budget breakdown since being on the team.
Peggy Assinck, who has played in Ontario since the sport’s inception, moved to Vancouver in 2009. Her bills started to amount to $10,000 per season, depending on where they played and whether she needed new equipment. That adds up to $15,000 when factoring in costs for training.
“In the end, I’ve gone into debt in order to play as part of the team. And that’s recognizing how valuable this team is for many of the girls on it. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she said.
“In the end, I’ve gone into debt in order to play as part of the team.” Peggy Assinck, Player
Most players on the team live in Ontario, where there are most training camps and competitions are. This means the average costs for Ontario sledge player on the women’s team are usually less than elsewhere in Canada, but remains close to $9,000 per season.
Others, including Buchanan who took a hiatus from the Canadian women’s wheelchair basketball development team, participate in other para-sports that do receive funding from their national sports organizations. The difference, says Buchanan, is that women’s sledge hockey players can be distracted from training and growing as athletes because they’re worried about funding for the season.
The high costs, however, are something the players are willing to pay, given how much the sport has allowed them a sense of purpose.
“Men get to play hockey for a living. Women don’t. Men [get to] train, to compete and to grow. Women don’t have that same opportunity. They might make a little bit of money, but it’s certainly not paying their rent. Sledge hockey is basically the same example,” Coulter said.
The team is focusing on proving to both Hockey Canada and the IPC that they are competitive and that the sport deserves the same treatment by helping to develop other teams across the world.
“It’s a common refrain, I think, in sports where there are differing opportunities afforded to men’s and women’s programs. It’s often left to the women’s program to build themselves up and fight for opportunities to gain recognition and support,” said Allison Sandmeyer-Graves, CEO of the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport.
In Canada, most sports tend to have higher male participation, but hockey shows the most significant disparity between genders.
This gap in opportunities in the Paralympics speaks volumes.
In its Paralympic debut in 1994, a female athlete was able to play for Norway. The rules were more relaxed then, allowing the sport to focus on participation.
In the 2006 Winter Paralympics, however, a Swedish female athlete was denied access to play because stricter rules dictated the sport to be male-only.
“For me, these women are pioneering their sport.” Tara Chisholm, Head coach
It was frustration with that discrimination that prompted volunteers in Canada and the United States to start women’s sledge hockey programs.
It wasn’t until 2009, however, that the IPC allowed females on sledge hockey teams again. That will be noticeable at this year’s Paralympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea with Norway’s Lena Schroeder being the first female in more than two decades to play.
But having women play along with the men is not the endgame for the Canadian women’s team. They’re aiming to become their own Paralympic sport by 2022.
“As an athlete it would be hard not to say that we hope that we’re at the Paralympics playing the sport that we love, fighting for a gold medal. But at the core of it, I just want more girls playing the game at any level. I just want as many girls on the ice playing sledge hockey,” Buchanan said.
Video: National women’s sledge hockey team fighting for Paralympic recognition
CREDITS: Reporting by RICHA SYAL; Photography by NICK IWANYSHYN; Graphics by CARRIE COCKBURN; Design and development by RICHA SYAL and DANIELLE WEBB; Editing by JAMIE ROSS and PHIL KING