Until yesterday, I knew very little about sledge hockey. When my girlfriend and I picked up tickets for both semi-final games of the Paralympic hockey tournament I knew that it was basically a seated version of hockey. And that's it. And so it was that yesterday she and I ventured off to UBC to put those tickets to use. The game provided good entertainment (except for the paid cheerleaders who tried to start a wave while the game was going on) even though Canada managed to lose 3-1. To Japan. Good God Almighty. More on my day of discovery and the "Greg Norman at the Masters" performance by the Canadians after the jump.
On Sledge Hockey
As I said above I walked in this afternoon having very little in the way of understanding. It was like bringing your Calgarian uncle to a hockey game. He's seen about five minutes of hockey on television so he kind of knows what's going on but for the most part he hasn't got a clue and he certainly doesn't get the nuances of the game even though he's supposedly a fan. That was me. For that reason, pretty much the whole game was spent trying to figure out what was going on.
The first thing I noticed was the physicality. I wasn't sure if body-checking would be allowed, but that was cleared up early and often. Both teams were banging bodies which gave the game a very "men's hockey" feel. But even without the hitting, the game itself takes ridiculous upper body strength. You propel yourself with your arms, you use your arms to shoot and you're also slamming into the players on the other team. It's a pretty intense workout. And did you know that hitting with the front of your sled is apparently called "teeing" and it's a penalty! (now I know what it was like to follow the Ducks during their run to the Cup!).
Despite all of the effort exerted, I'm pretty convinced that I could skate faster than these guys (and not in the "I could skate faster than Strudwick" way either, I think I could actually move quicker). That's not a condemnation; the two activities are completely different. It was just that the game was just a touch or two slower than I was expecting. It was especially difficult to skate with the puck since you needed to both stickhandle and use your sticks to propel forward. As such, passing was often the order of the day. Further, because it took more time to get to the bench both teams tended to take longer shifts, just over a minute on average from what I could tell. They also only used ten skaters for the most part - two groups of five - which I imagine led to guys conserving energy at times even if the periods were only fifteen minutes instead of twenty.
The in-game strategy was sometimes frustrating. There were times when both teams would try to dive on the puck or rag it against the boards and it would remain frozen there for ten to fifteen seconds. Once in a while it would be the impressive Laraque-style one-man-cycle but more often it was just one player diving on top of the puck and having the ref wait until someone could jam it loose. Perhaps there's already a penalty for this and it wasn't being called (the Canadians did get a delay-of-game minor for shooting the puck over the glass), but if not, there really should be because it definitely tood away from the action.
On The Game
The Canadians badly outshot the Japanese but the flow of play was pretty close for the first two periods. The Japanese weren't afraid to be physical and didn't seem outclassed with regard to skating. Their passing and ability to protect the puck wasn't quite as good by eye in this one but the game was definitely competitive which is really what I was hoping for coming in, as well as a Canadian win.
All three Japanese goals were gifts to some degree. The first one was a terrible break-out pass into the high slot that a Japanese forward intercepted and promptly put into the goal to tie the score 1-1 after two. At the end of the third period - completely dominated by Canada - the Canadians got nervous or cocky or something and started recklessly pressing for the winner. Predictably, they got caught pinching which left a 3-on-1 coming the other way. Imagine trying to defend a 3-on-1 with less than two minutes left. AND you can't skate backwards. AND you've got two short sticks instead of a long one. Hopeless. To Japan's credit they made a series of clean passes to get a guy in completely alone and he made a beautiful shot to give the Japanese a 2-1 lead. The crowd had been really into the game which made you feel the let-down in the building. My girlfriend, meanwhile, looked about as downcast as you can look. She didn't have any idea how sledge hockey was played either but saw the words "Canada," "Japan" and "Hockey" and just assumed that we had this one in the bank. I think that reaction was pretty typical.
On the other hand, the small Japanese contingent was in the section beside us and they were going bonkers for these guys. When a Canadian pass missed its target and found its way into the empty net their joy had been made complete. It was over. Canada had lost to Japan. Both goalkeepers had tears in their eyes which made it impossible to be bitter against Japan's squad (Finland sucks!) and legitimately sad that the Canadians didn't pull it out of the fire. When your keeper is turning 50, you know it's his last chance at glory. The teams shook hands and saluted the crowd together which was a pretty awesome display of sportsmanship. And hey, I'm not going to sugarcoat things and say that we should all be satisfied with the result but I will say that both teams did their sport proud. They were all out effort all game and they put on a great show.
On My New Profession
After the game my girlfriend and I went out for lunch (good) and she promptly got a headache or had homework or something (bad) and decided to go home which left me with two tickets to the second semi-final and only one body. As someone who complained rather vociferously during the Olympics about "sold-out" hockey games having a tonne of empty seats, I wasn't about to become one of those folks who sits on two tickets and stays home so I sent her away and waited until game-time.
As much as I wasn't willing to not use the tickets I also wasn't too thrilled about watching the game alone. This gave me an excellent opportunity to "scalp" at least one and maybe two tickets. I'd either make a friend to watch the game with or make a bit of money before heading home. For me "scalping" had always entailed walking up to the guy in the LRT station yelling "Tickets! Anybody need tickets!" and selling him any extras at a discount and then walking into the game. Nice and easy. Last night, however, there was no LRT staion and no one visibly identifying himself (sexism!) as Mr. Scalper Guy. Instead there were about five poor saps like myself by the box office trying to sell tickets and not having much luck. Ten minutes to gametime.
So I put on my LRT station voice and started walking back toward the crowd trying to catch someone who might need a seat. "Tickets! Anybody need tickets!" I had been trained well, my friends. After a minute or two a couple of guys stopped and we had the following conversation:
Them - "Yeah, we're looking for two tickets"
Me - "Well, I've only got one option for you..." followed by a description of where the seats are. I'm feeling pretty confident right now, sounding like I've done it before. Oh yeah.
Them - "So what are you looking for, $30 for each one?" $30 was face value and I was surprised they even mentioned it. So...
Me - "Well, it doesn't need to be 30." God damn, am I ever dumb sometimes.
Them - "So what then? $20? $15?" Things have clearly gone off the rails quickly. I started off so well!
Me - "Twenty sounds good."
Guy 1 - "You can give him twenty, I'll give him fifteen." Jesus.
Guy 2 - "Come on, man." Thank God. Guy 1 hands me $20.
Guy 2 - "I only have fifteen." Of course.
Me - "That's fine." God damn, am I ever dumb sometimes.
Guy 2 - "Thanks." Guy 2 hands me $15, at which point Guy 1 nabs $5 out of my hand and you had better believe I deserved it for my performance.
So I ended up with $30 for my two tickets which I wasn't unhappy with. But, uh, not well-played. As I saw money slip away five and ten dollars at a time and realized how dumb I really am, I feel like it helped me to connect with that Canadian hockey team. "God damn, am I ever dumb sometimes" was probably not an uncommon thought in that dressing room. But chin up boys, you play for bronze today (8:00 p.m. MDT) and just like me, I'll bet you end up with something to show for your efforts. Go Canada!