Ice sledge hockey and standard hockey have a lot in common-same rules, same rinks, and the same in-your-face speed on the ice. There have always been important differences between the two, though-in abilities, equipment, and…sexism? Players of ice sledge hockey (usually called sled hockey in the United States) have lower-body disabilities. To play the game, they strap into ice-level sleds with skate blades underneath, then use two spiked sticks to sweep themselves and a puck across the rink. And unlike standard hockey, which has had elite women’s teams for more than a decade and has been a women’s Olympic medal sport since 1998, ice sledge hockey has never made a place for elite women players. Until now.
On April 3, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) released a statement proclaiming the transformation of Paralympic ice sledge hockey at Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Games from an all-men’s sport to a mixed sport. Team rosters were previously limited to 15 players, and now teams may bring 16 players if at least one is a woman. The IPC said, “Responding to the request of the nations widely and regularly practicing the sport of ice sledge hockey, the IPC governing board has approved an entry provision to allow qualified teams for the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games to enter female athletes to their roster should they wish. The inclusion of female athletes for ice sledge hockey is a step in the direction of promoting greater female participation in this sport and the Paralympic Winter Games in general.”
Thus far, the decision applies only to the 2010 Games in Vancouver and the qualification period leading up to it, but the IPC says it will “continue to explore other initiatives and opportunities to further develop the sport worldwide in the lead-up to the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.”
Three years ago, Dan Brennan, general manager of Paralympic Team USA Sled Hockey, had to tell two elite female players that they would not be allowed to try out for the national team, due to the IPC’s original restrictions. He called it “kind of heartbreaking.” He told The O&P EDGE that he knew these restrictions were dropping, though, because at the most recent World Championships meeting, it was voted that women would be allowed to try out for national teams. As to the official change at the Paralympics, Brennan said, “I’m all for it. If they’re good enough to make the team, they’ll make it, and if they’re not they won’t, but I think the opportunity needs to be there.