Canada’s sledge hockey team aims to back up world title with Paralympic gold

CALGARY — Canada’s sledge hockey veteran says the team can handle the pressure of being the defending world champions heading into the Paralympic Games.

When you play hockey for Canada, there’s always a bull’s-eye on your back, according to forward Greg Westlake.

“Let’s just say I’ve played 300 career games. I’ve felt the target on my back 300 times,” the three-time Paralympian said.

Westlake, from Oakville, Ont., was among 20 players named Monday to the 2017-18 national team by Hockey Canada. They were chosen from 30 invited to a selection camp in Calgary last week.

The roster announced Monday is essentially the team that will wear the Maple Leaf at the 2018 Winter Paralympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea in March.

However, Paralympic rosters are limited to 17 players, including two goaltenders, so there will still be some internal competition to move up Canada’s depth chart.

The goaltenders have been finalized with Dominic Larocque of Quebec City and Corbin Watson of Kingsville, Ont., named to the team.

“We feel we have depth now in our lineup that we can look at 20 players and see who is going to be the best fit in terms of the Paralympics,” head coach Ken Babey said on a conference call.

“We think we have the makings of a very good team here as we have the right mix of youth, speed, skill and experience.

“We believe these traits suit our team’s style of play and give us the best chance of having a gold medal in March in 2018.”

Canada will host the Dec. 3-9 World Sledge Hockey Challenge in Charlottetown before facing the U.S. in a pre-Paralympic series in February.

Seventeen players who helped Canada beat the U.S. 4-1 and win gold in April’s world championship are among those returning to the team this winter.

“We can’t sit on this win,” Larocque said. “We’re heading in a good direction, but it’s not done yet. A lot of work to do until March.”

That world championship at the Gangneung Hockey Center in Pyeongchang was also a Paralympic test event.

Westlake and forward Billy Bridges of Summerside, P.E.I., won Paralympic gold in 2006 in Turin, Italy.

They won bronze eight years later in Sochi, Russia, with Larocque, Watson and other veterans Steve Arsenault of Spruce Grove, Alta., Ottawa’s Ben Delaney, Brad Bowden of Orton, Ont., Adam Dixon of Midland, Ont., James Gemmell of Quesnel, B.C., and Tyler McGregor of Forest, Ont.

The team will spend between 40 and 50 days together in camps or competitions prior to the Paralympic Games, said Hockey Canada senior manager of hockey operations Shawn Bullock.

The sledge team’s Own The Podium funding for 2017-18 is $675,000, which is an increase of $145,000 over the 2013-14 season.

The money will be spent on camps, equipment and travel, including another trip to South Korea in November, Bullock said.

“We’ve increased our regional camps, support to the players, we’re looking at having advanced equipment this year with sticks, buckets and sleds for the guys,” he explained.

“We want to make sure everyone has the right equipment and the best equipment going into Pyeongchang, so that’s certainly going to be an upgrade this year.”

“The support we’ve gotten from OTP is tremendous. Certainly them knowing the quality of the program and the dedicated staff and players that we have, they’ve seen our work ethic and the plan that’s in place and they like it. So they’re supporting us even further.”

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