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Paralympic sledge hockey players on hunt for triple gold

Team Canada practices before the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. The team is looking for gold after missing the podium in Vancouver in 2010.

Matthew Murnaghan/Canadian Paralympic Committee

Canada's Paralympic sledge hockey players have heard the call for triple hockey gold in Sochi.

It's their turn now.

The Canadian women's and men's squads recently earned gold medals at the Sochi Winter Olympics, and the sledge team aims to follow suit as the Paralympics open this weekend – its players blazing across the same Russian ice on sleds at some 40 kilometres an hour, playing a highly physical, full-contact version of hockey.

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A team with lofty expectations inexplicably left the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics empty-handed, and while that memory still stings, much has changed for the squad since.

Several players retired after 2010, and new talent emerged. The team headed for Sochi is much younger, deeper and more athletic.

Its newcomers include a soldier who lost his leg in Afghanistan, an elite motocross athlete injured in a dirt bike accident and a promising junior hockey prospect who got on the sled after cancer claimed his leg.

Never have all three Hockey Canada teams won gold in the same Olympic/Paralympic year.

The nation's sledge hockey teams have made the podium three times since the sport debuted in 1994 (bronze in '94, silver in '98 and gold in 2006). But after Canada's men and women took hockey Olympic gold in Vancouver, the sledge team stumbled, losing a stunner to Japan in the Paralympic semi-finals, then another to Norway in the bronze-medal game.

"A lot of things in our game plan now weren't there in Vancouver," team captain Greg Westlake said. "We can roll our lines more than we did in Vancouver, and play a more upbeat, aggressive style.

"We're deeper and we'll be aggressive, take a lot of shots and be very in-your-face. We have a lot of big guys and we think we'll tire out defences as they try to move us."

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Just eight of the 17 players on the squad were on the 2010 Paralympic team.

Forward Kevin Rempel is making his Paralympic debut. The former freestyle motocross athlete has suffered a lifetime of pain.

In 2002, during a hunting trip, he watched his father fall from a tree stand. Left paraplegic, his dad pleaded with Rempel to stop dirt bike racing for fear he, too, would be injured.

In 2006, while performing in a dirt bike showcase, a jump went terribly wrong and Rempel, then 23, fell more than 20 metres, shattering his back. He, too, was paralyzed.

His father wallowed in the sorrow of his own injury and committed suicide.

Rempel threw himself into rehabilitation. He had broken bones before and always recovered, convincing himself an injured spine would be no different. A year of intensive physiotherapy had his legs moving again, walking again, although with muscle atrophy. He could ride again, too.

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He tried sledge hockey in 2008, and set the national team as his goal. The athletic six-foot, 200-pounder is one of the best traffic-creators on the 2014 squad.

"All the things I wanted to do in my life in dirt biking, I'm getting to live now through sledge hockey, on a greater scale than I could have imagined," said the native of Vineland, Ont. "I've played internationally, but we typically play in pretty empty arenas with very little coverage, but the Paralympics is going to be the experience of a lifetime."

Another impact newcomer is 19-year-old Tyler McGregor of Forest, Ont., a former Triple-A hockey player who lost his leg to cancer.

The team has also added physical forward Dominic Larocque, a corporal who was serving in Afghanistan, when his truck drove over an explosive in 2007. He had to have his leg amputated above the knee. Later, the strapping athlete from Quebec City gave sledge hockey a try, and excelled quickly.

Before leaving for Sochi, Russia, the Canadians spent a few days team-building in Alberta, cooking pot-luck meals in cabins in Canmore, and playing outdoor hockey among the majestic mountains of Lake Louise.

Canada won gold at the 2013 Four Nations tournament and the world sledge hockey challenge, and is a top contender along with Russia and the United States. The Canadians begin the tournament Saturday against Sweden. The gold-medal game is March 15.

"We're right in line with Hockey Canada's goal, which is gold every year, and that can be an exhausting quest, but people around us expect success, and that makes us better athletes," Westlake said. "This is our Stanley Cup, our gold medal, our everything."

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