Everything went a bit flat after the Olympics, and many of us actually experienced withdrawal symptoms. We missed the crowds and the atmosphere and the flags and the cheering. But never fear, the Paralympics are here! Welcome back, world, we missed you!
After a couple of weeks of vague "hey, we should go to the Paralympics" talk, my friends and I realised on Friday that we needed to get our arses in gear. Top of our wish list was the sledge hockey (or "hockey sur luge", as the French text on my ticket says. Now that would be a sport: stick-handling a puck while you fly down a luge track, with a goalie waiting for your shot at the end. Best. Shootout. EVAH. But I digress). All of Team Canada's games were sold out, but we did manage to get decent seats for Norway vs. Sweden last Saturday - a snip at $20 each!
It was great to be back on the bus with chatty sports fans wearing their team's shirts and singing away. We passed the curling venue, and saw more huge crowds with flags and painted faces. The party is back in town! But none of this helped me with my dilemma; as we neared the stadium, I was still trying to work out who to support. This was the first time I'd ever been to a live sporting event where I didn't already support one of the teams; I've watched lots of sport on TV as a neutral, but never in person. I was truly stumped. I like both Sweden and Norway; I have Swedish and Norwegian friends; I like ABBA and Aha; I'd already seen a team from each country lose to Canada in the Olympic hockey. One idea was to cheer for whichever team had the fewest supporters in the stadium, but it seemed like a fairly even split (most people were cheering in English, though. A big group of local kids behind us had turned their own team's red jerseys inside out (you could see the logo through the fabric) and added blue arm bands and letters spelling out "NORWAY", all made of electrical tape, to match the Norwegian team's jerseys). I would usually support the underdog, but honestly had no idea which team that would be; in Olympic hockey it would be Norway, but apparently they're better at sledge hockey than at regular hockey.
So, I fell back on Plan B: support Norway during the first period, Sweden during the second, and for the rest of the game either the team that was behind at the beginning of the third, or in the event of a tie, whichever team I thought deserved it the most.
As it turns out, this cunning plan resulted in me supporting the team shooting towards our end in every period, which was a bonus. And it didn't take me long to get into the game and cheer loudly for whichever team I was supporting at that time.
Team Sweden get ready for the start of the game
It was a great first period, with lots of action in our end. It was quickly apparent that Norway were the better attacking team, with lots of flair and skill, whereas Sweden were more defensive and had the better goalie. But it was Sweden who went into the first intermission with a one goal lead, with a breakaway goal after some sustained pressure from Norway.
The skill levels were truly phenomenal. Beth Snow has some background information on the sport on her blog; the sticks she shows have hockey stick blades on one end, and spikes for propulsion on the other. These guys can stick handle with both hands while using the same sticks to move around; I'd like to see your average NHL player try that! One popular strategy was to come at the goalie on an angle, with the puck hidden behind your body, then to suddenly sit back, lift the front end of your sled up, and shoot under your body so that the goalie couldn't see the puck coming until the very last second. We also saw one of the Norwegian players lean back and pass the puck under his sled with his left hand, then collect the rebound off the boards behind him with his right hand, transfer the puck back to his left hand, and finally pass it right onto the stick of a team mate - all while using the same sticks to move forward. Simply amazing.
The rules and penalties are pretty much the same as in regular hockey, but with the addition of a penalty called teeing, which basically means ramming another player with your sled. Did I mention that this is one hell of a physical sport? There were full body checks into the boards and everything else you might expect from Olympic hockey.
Failed attempt to get a good photo of a full body check into the boards
The game is obviously not as fast as the hockey I'm used to watching,
but there was no shortage of action and excitement. Power plays, breakaways, shots, saves, goal line clearances - this game had it all!
Norway were still 1-0 behind at the beginning of the third, but I'd already decided to cheer for them in the final period even if they'd tied it up. Both teams were great, but very different, and I'll always go for a good attacking team over a good defensive one. The volume in the stadium ramped up to eleven as Norway finally beat the Swedish goalie midway through the final period, after outshooting the Swedes something like 25 to 8. Overtime was fast and furious, and then we went to a shootout - this game was certainly great value for money! The players start at their own net, build up a crazy amount of speed, pick up the puck at centre ice, and barrel down on the poor goalie. After several saves from both teams, Norway finally broke the deadlock for a well deserved victory (although I was glad to see Sweden pick up a point for their excellent defensive efforts), and we stood up and cheered ourselves hoarse before going for a well deserved pint.
Conclusion: sledge hockey RULES! And Team Canada are kicking ass so far.
On Saturday I'm going to the Apline Skiing in Whistler and I can't wait!
GO CANADA GO!