Dominic Larocque, of Quebec City, a former soldier who lost his leg in Afghanistan and who now plays for the Canadian National sledge hockey team, practices with teammates in Calgary on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. Puzzled looks and furrowed brows greeted Larocque when he showed up in goalie gear at a Canadian para ice hockey team camp. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Soldier switches from forward to goal on Canada’s Paralympic hockey team

Puzzled looks and furrowed brows greeted Dominic Larocque when he showed up in goalie gear at a Canadian para ice hockey team camp.

Why a top-six forward would choose to pick up the “tools of ignorance” mystified his teammates.

Larocque had just helped Canada win a bronze medal at the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia, with three goals and an assist in five games.

“I didn’t want him to switch to goalie,” his teammate Greg Westlake recalled. “I didn’t like it at first.”

New to coaching the national para hockey team in the fall of 2015, Ken Babey knew Larocque had been a productive forward.

“When you have one of the top six forwards from the Paralympics switching to goal, it was kind of like ‘uh, I don’t know if you want to do this right now,”’ Babey said.

But Larocque had secretly craved the responsibility and unforgiving nature of the position, even when he was an able-bodied forward for the Junior A Valleyfield Braves.

“Since I was a kid I dreamed to be a goalie,” Larocque said. “When I was a kid, I was centre for 10 to 12 years. After that, I went into the army.”

Cpl. Larocque of the Royal 22nd Regiment, the Van Doos, lost his left leg in an explosion in Afghanistan in 2007 when the armoured vehicle he was in rolled over improvised explosive device.

The 30-year-old from Quebec City came to sledge hockey via Soldier On, which is a program linking injured Canadian soldiers to sport.

Larocque was the first athlete from the program to become a Winter Paralympian. He’s one of 10 veterans from the 2014 para hockey squad taking another run at gold in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The 17-member para ice hockey team is the largest contingent of athletes on Canada’s Paralympic team of 55 also competing in curling, alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, biathlon and snowboarding.

The opening ceremonies are Friday. The Canadian Paralympic Committee says the goal for the team is to increase the number of podium finishes from 2014, where Canadians won 16 medals (seven gold, two silver, seven bronze).

The team opens the preliminary round Saturday versus Sweden.

“For us, we don’t expect anything else than the gold medal,” Larocque said. “My bronze medal in Sochi was one of my favourite experiences overall, but we expect gold for sure.”

His adaptation to the para hockey crease has been as quick as his adaptation to the sport.

Larocque was Canada’s starter in the final of the 2017 world championship in South Korea, which was also a test event for the 2018 Paralympic Games.

He stopped 12 of 13 shots in Canada’s 4-1 win over the United States. Larocque allowed just three goals in four games and posted three shutouts in the tournament.

“His progression has been amazing,” Babey said. “He and Corbin Watson, another great goalie, battled it out all last year and Dom got the gold medal game and won that.

“He handled his pressure just like he thought he would, with confidence and calm about him. That’s great to have in goal because the team feeds off that.”

It’s a old hockey trope that goaltenders are weird, because who willingly puts their body parts in front of flying projectiles?

“I don’t know if I’m a good person to tell you if I’m crazy or not,” Larocque mused. “Of course, you have to be weird to try and stop pucks.”

But he loves the feeling of being a difference-maker — for better or for worse — in goal.

“What I love is the feeling of, if you make a mistake, they score a goal,” Larocque said .

“When you’re a forward or a defenceman, you can have a turnover or miss the net or miss a pass, it’s not a big deal. You have teammates behind you who can fix that mistake. But when you’re a goalie, when you do a mistake, it’s a goal. The more mistakes you do, you don’t have a lot of chance to win the game.

“Sometimes, for some reason, you don’t have a lot of chances to score a lot of goals, but if the opposing team can’t score, it gives your team more chances to win by a lucky goal or a shootout. I prefer that to be that guy.”

Westlake has come around to his teammate’s position switch.

“I was unhappy about it and now here we are celebrating a world championship with him as a starting goalie,” Westlake said. “He was right and I was wrong on that one.”

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