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New League Fosters Fun, Fitness and Friendships

New League Fosters Fun, Fitness and Friendships
The Niagara Sledge Hockey League (NSHL) is a first-of-its-kind community program.
Constructed by ParaSport® Ontario, with the support of the Ontario Trillium Foundation and Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities, the new league was built from the ground up through countless foundational relationships which included sponsors, municipalities, organizations, players and their friends and families, and volunteers.

These essential relationships created something more influential than a new league for sledge hockey in the Region of Niagara. It created a community – a community of people who want to see others around them succeed. The creation of a new sledge hockey community has been the best part of the NSHL, and the league will look to continue to help grow parasport across the Niagara region.

The NSHL community launched with four participating municipalities. Grimsby, Niagara Falls, St. Catharines and Welland became the inaugural host communities. Each community brought a different element to the project. The league was designed to be all inclusive, open to all ages and abilities, and for people with and without disabilities to participate.

The Town of Grimsby welcomed sledge hockey into the fold of its community events which generated enormous awareness for sledge hockey everywhere. It was magical to watch the entirety of a town develop a different lens on a parasport. At Rogers Hometown Hockey’s weekend festival in Grimsby, ParaSport Ontario introduced hundreds of Grimsby residents and young hockey players to the sport. What was at first welcomed with hesitation and expressions of “that’s a funny way to play hockey” quickly evolved into Grimsby residents embracing their town’s sledge hockey team.

When ParaSport Ontario’s “Sledge Hockey in Action” Santa Claus Parade float joined the traditional procession along Grimsby’s route just a week later, sledge players were met with cheers and exclamations of “there’s sledge hockey” from throngs of kids and adults alike lining the streets. That sense of recognition meant the world to the athletes riding on the float’s mini rink in full hockey gear.
New League Fosters Fun, Fitness and Friendships
This was more than a sport or a jersey, this was a new slice of their identity. They were Niagara Sledge Hockey League players. Beyond their new identity, the NSHL community is an opportunity for individuals to find a welcoming social space that provides fitness, fun and friendships. “A few years ago, my neurologist told me if I don’t stay active, I’ll need a wheelchair full-time,” said Shelley Gilbert in an interview with Moosa Imran of Niagara This Week, the region’s weekly newspaper.

The league also serves a critical need within the larger community in Niagara to produce more recreational options for participation throughout the ongoing pandemic. This would not have been possible without the enthusiastic support from the local arenas and their staff. With respect to staff, take Angelo and Brent from Grimsby’s Peach King Centre for example. The “Zamboni drivers” as they’re known by the players, are both quick to help out as unofficial volunteers, carrying sledges to and from the ice, and helping players into their equipment where needed, and always exuding respect for their abilities.

One key component to the growth of the Niagara Sledge Hockey League was meaningful and impassioned guidance and support. Local support from the Brock Niagara Penguins and their Niagara Thunderblades competitive sledge hockey team was a perfect blend for first-time sledge hockey players. Thunderblades players signed on to play alongside newcomers, creating new leaders and peer mentors in the fresh community. Leadership at the recreational level has helped numerous players find their parasport path in sledge hockey.

The Niagara Sledge Hockey League also received support from National Team members. “It’s a huge move for our sport,” former Canadian Para Ice Hockey player Kevin Rempel said during an interview with Rod Mawhood of the Niagara Sports Report. “It’s so important for the Paralympics, for people with disabilities, and for integrating the community with more local recreational programming.” Rempel, a Paralympic bronze medallist and St. Catharines native, has been a driving force behind the new NSHL community, offering his expertise to the league and its new members.

Rempel launched a Sledge Skills video series in conjunction with the launch of the NSHL that highlights key skills and drills to help beginners develop. The series features six-time para ice hockey Paralympian Billy Bridges and Canadian Women’s para ice hockey player Claire Buchanon who share their knowledge and abilities with newcomers to the sport and demonstrate to new players how high they can soar.

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