USA, Canada rivalry at rink
President’s Day weekend in Park City will have a bit of an Olympic feel this year. For the first time, the Park City Ice Arena will host an International Sled Hockey game, featuring the national teams of both USA and Canada.
"It’s a big rivalry," said U.S. team captain and multi-time Paralympian Dave Conklin. "We always have very heated competition with Canada."
Among the American contingent, 14 have participated in the Paralympic Games 11 from 2006, two from 2002 and one from 1998. Although this is a rebuilding period, just one year removed from the Paralympics — Conklin says that the new team members are focused on winning.
One of those new players is Park City’s Greg Shaw. The World Cup skier is splitting time between the slopes and the rink this season. Shaw just made the national team this year and has been traveling around the country since January attending clinics with the team to become acclimated to the level of competition.
"With them being so good, it pushes us to work harder to someday be at that level," Shaw said. "It’s been a pretty big year. I just keep going. It’s how I live my life."
Despite difficulties traveling to Utah after the rash of snowstorms in the East, Conklin said that February in Park City was the ideal time and place to hold such an elite tournament.
"It was a magical time in 2002," Conklin said referring to the American teams’ gold medal experience on home soil.
The National Ability Center’s (NAC) strong sled hockey club programs and their support of Paralympic endeavors also helped influence the decision. Conklin said that the team will be in Western Canada next March, and an early opportunity for the U.S. team to acclimate to the altitude and time zone was also an added basis.
Canada won Paralympic gold in Turin, so this weekend’s tournament will also give the Americans a shot at redemption. Neither team actually played against each other during the Games, so they are both excited to put their skills to the test. In fact, the two teams haven’t met since a World Cup competition in 2004.
"We have a lot of talent, even though it’s a growing year," Conklin said. "It’s important to the program and players to represent our country at the highest level."
For Shaw, every training is another chance for him to increase his skills and build camaraderie with his teammates.
"I think I’ve learned to just pick up everything," Shaw said. "Put it all in and just work hard and do your best every time you get on the ice."
Both are hoping for a big turnout through the three-day event. Shaw says that he has invited his friends and family to watch him play with and against the world’s best.
"Greg has so much talent on the snow and on the ice," Conklin said. "We try to get a piece of him. He’s going to be a big asset in this sport."
It’s been a big year for the teenager, who has also quickly moved up the ranks on the U.S. Disabled Alpine Ski Team, although he says the ice is his real love.
"I’d rather be here than ski," Shaw said. "It’s a different mental state than in an individual sport, because you have to rely on the other guys."
Conklin says that the public will be treated to action on the ice that is just as fast if not faster than that of regular hockey.
"There’s nothing like sled hockey," agrees Shaw. "It’s fast and big-hitting. You’ve got to come out and watch it."
The team has scheduled numerous games against able-bodied hockey players. The other team is always impressed by the team’s ability to balance on one blade and how they maintain so much momentum and speed.
Conklin says that over the years, the sport has risen to a very high level. In Turin, the Americans fielded a relatively young team and fell short of repeating Paralympic gold by a few goals.
"But," Conklin warns, "We are coming back with a vengeance."
In contrast, the Canada team will feature more experienced veterans, but Conklin isn’t worried.
"We’re looking to steal goals from them," Conklin said. "I’m looking to a very physical team and a highly emotional game."
The USA vs. Canada sled hockey game will take place Feb. 17-18 at the Park City Ice Arena. Saturday’s game will start at 8:15 p.m. and Sunday at 9:15 a.m. A suggested donation of $5 will go toward the National Ability Center and U.S. Sled Hockey. For more information, call 649-3991 or visit http://www.DiscoverNAC.org.
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