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Ottawa at the Paralympics Day 5: Wheelchair curlers’ playoff hopes rise

By Dan Plouffe & Ethan Diamandas (This article was first sent to subscribers of the Ottawa at the Paralympics Daily Newsletter. Sign up to receive it, for free, here.)

After starting the tournament with four wins followed by three losses, Ottawa’s Collinda Joseph and the Canadian wheelchair curling team switched back to their earlier streak with a pair of crucial wins today in Beijing.

Leading 4-3 over heading into the seventh end, the Canadians loaded up four rocks in the house and ultimately stole two to power their first win of the day over Great Britain 6-3.

In their next match against Latvia, Canada was ahead just 4-3 halfway through, but again took control by stealing a pair in both the sixth and seventh and ends to waltz on to a 9-3 win.

The Canadians’ record improved to 6-3 and brightened their playoff prospects considerably heading into their final round robin contest, where they can ensure a top-4 place in the semi-finals with a victory over Norway.

Collinda Joseph during Canada’s wheelchair curling match against Korea. Photo: CPC

Joseph served as Canada’s alternate for the two most recent matches after making her Paralympic debut a day earlier. The 56-year-old threw second stones for Canada in the match against Korea, and despite a nervy start, wound up curling 75% for the match, healthily outpacing the opposing second at 55%.

“It was pretty amazing, I have to say,” Joseph said via the Canadian Paralympic Committee. “I was kind of shaking at the beginning – physically shaking – so I was trying to calm myself down. So after the first two shots, I got into the rhythm of the game and settled in.”

Getting to play in the Paralympics and attending the Opening Ceremonies were “unbelievable” experiences she’ll never forget, Joseph highlighted in a Curling Canada Paralympic blog post, though she said the overall atmosphere has been “a bit underwhelming.”

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“It’s a lot less of everything – compared to what I expected,” wrote Joseph, who took up wheelchair curling at age 40 at the RA Centre. “Mainly because of Covid, and the ‘closed loop’ system, there’s a lot less interaction with other athletes, fans, and even other members of Team Canada. The Athletes’ Village is quiet and seems empty. I expected it to be a busy place!”

But extra bonding with teammates and staff has been a positive, she added, along with organized and efficient transportation. The 9-4 loss against Korea was not the Canadian team’s best effort, but it may be Joseph’s lone on-ice appearance during the Games.

“We didn’t get the result we wanted, but personally I was pleased with how I played, how engaged I was, and my whole performance,” she signalled. “Now that I’ve had a minute to reflect on it, I’m really proud of myself and what I did. That’s a big moment, and a big stage like that, and it can really mess you up if it doesn’t go well…

“A win would have been better, but I’m still going to take away some positive memories from that experience.”

Day 6 Preview: Canada can book ticket to wheelchair curling medal round

Collinda Joseph is the lone local athlete on the Day 6 schedule, but it’ll be a big one as the Canadian wheelchair curling team has the chance to qualify for the playoff round with a victory over Norway (8:35 p.m. ET start). At 4-5, the Norwegians are unlikely to make the playoffs, but they’re not officially out either.

Canada will be the first team to finish all 10 matches of the round robin (their final match initially was to have been against the Russian Paralympic Committee before the last-minute expulsion of Russian and Belarusian athletes before the Games).

No question a win would provide a much more comfortable seat to sit and watch the remaining teams play their final contests, without the stress of computing the many different scenarios that could come into play should they lose.

The Canadians could still make the playoff round with a loss, but, like the Olympics, there is no tiebreaking round – it’s all up to the number crunchers to pick the semi-finalists, and both of Canada’s mixed doubles and women’s Olympic teams will tell you how pitiful that was.

Tyrone Henry’s time to shine

Alongside Sledge Hockey of Eastern Ontario teammates Rob Armstrong, Ben Delaney and Anton Jacobs-Webb, Tyrone Henry will be carrying on a proud SHEO tradition as he and Team Canada head into the medal round of the para ice hockey competition in Beijing.

Tyrone Henry during a Team Canada practice at Beijing 2022. Photo: CPC

The first time Henry discovered para ice hockey – formerly called sledge hockey – was during the Vancouver 2010 Paralympics, when he watched on TV before he was even in a wheelchair.

The 2010 team was stock full of Ottawa players, and that’s who he thought of when he found himself in the intensive care unit, paralyzed from the waist down after a car crash later that year.

“I always look back to when I was in the hospital and made (the Paralympics) that goal for myself,” Henry reflected in a pre-Games interview with the Ottawa Sports Pages’ Ethan Diamandas. “It got me through my rehab; it got me through the first few years of what is now my life.”

Previously a hockey player, Henry first got into a sledge in 2011 and made the national team come 2016. World Championships gold followed that season, and it’s been a lot of silver since, including Canada’s heartbreaking overtime defeat to USA at PyeongChang 2018, when Henry made his Paralympics debut.

“At some points (the 2018 Paralympics were) probably a bit more overwhelming and I was kind of taking in a bit more of a spectacle of the whole Games,” recounted the 28-year-old. “I think learning off that and building that into the last four years has been a big challenge, but it’s been something that I’m kind of proud of because it’s made me definitely into a better all-round player within my role.”

Tyrone Henry after Team Canada’s opening 5-0 loss vs USA. Photo: CPC

Henry didn’t see the ice during the decisive moments of his debut Paralympics, but the Team Canada defenceman had the second-most ice time in his side’s preliminary round match against USA.

Four years since watching the big games from the sidelines, Henry’s also wearing an “A” on his jersey – the assistant captain assignment standing as a testament to his character and commitment to the sport, which he only wants to see rise further in Ottawa and Canada.

“I’ve been looking at the game a bit bigger, and how big the growth in Canada could be with a gold medal around our necks,” signalled Henry, whose semi-final match with Korea begins late Thursday evening Ottawa time. “I’d like to kind of show that passion that I saw in those (Vancouver 2010) players at the time, and bring it forward to the next generation.”

Giving back ingrained in local para hockey players

There’s another strong tradition that Henry is also carrying on from the Vancouver 2010 group, and that’s helping to build para hockey from the bottom up to the top.

Henry serves as SHEO’s volunteer intermediate division director, and his father is a former SHEO president who now serves as director for the Canadian women’s national para ice hockey team (highlighted in yesterday’s Ottawa at the Paralympics coverage.) Henry noted in a Hockey Canada grassroots program feature that he’s very proud to see young SHEO players climbing the ranks, such as Chadd Stoppa and Nathan Sparks, who will soon take part in a Team Canada “NextGen” camp.

“That’s the impact we want to have as national players,” Henry highlights. “I want to see more kids in Ottawa take up that mantle down the road because it was passed to me and I want to pass it to the next generation.”

Alain Bazinet, SHEO’s acting president and a jack-of-all-trades for the SHEO executive, said in a recent interview with the Sports Pages’ Dan Plouffe that there is no one better to help spread the organization’s ideas and philosophies than the stars who have gone up through their ranks to then compete at the highest levels.

“It’s really about promoting and sharing a sport that we have so much passion for,” signals Bazinet, a long-time Team Ontario and national development team player who was also part of the world’s first sledge hockey wedding when he got married at centre ice in 2012 (his kids, age 7 and 9, now play with SHEO too).

“We love the sport and we just want more people involved, and to share our excitement with others,” he adds. “That culture of giving back is consistent.”

Todd Nicholson calls for a pass during 2010 Paralympic sledge hockey action in Vancouver. Photo: CPC/HC/Matthew Manor

The local leaders of Canada’s 2010 Paralympic team set the tone in that department. Having won Canada’s lone Paralympic gold four years earlier in Torino, Todd Nicholson and Jean Labonté were 41 when they competed in Vancouver, while Hervé Lord was 51.

Vancouver 2010 flag bearer Labonté has since started a para hockey club in Gatineau, while Lord helps to grow the sport in Kingston. Nicholson has served as Team Canada chef de mission and on the International Paralympic Committee executive, while still assisting with endless grassroots initiatives.

“The nice thing with sledge hockey is there’s really no age limit,” notes Bazinet. “Our players stay and play until they’re 65, but as people mature and compete a little bit less, we really focus on growing and volunteering and promoting the sport.”

SHEO’s main focus is on providing opportunities for people with disabilities, though their programs are open to anyone who wants to try playing para ice hockey. Based out of Jim Durrell Recreation Centre, SHEO has a house league on Friday nights and then a series of sessions on Sundays.

There is an introductory program (which has grown the most in recent years), an open division (which includes a travel-team), and the intermediates (for competitive athletes who play body contact games). It’s not unusual for Team Canada stars to be present, though COVID’s made that a bit more difficult with players needing to isolate in advance of the Paralympics.

Bazinet pegs the number of SHEO players who have competed for Team Canada lifetime at almost two dozen, but the first step on that journey, he smiles, is to come and try it out.

“We’re always accepting new members. There’s never a bad time to join,” Bazinet underlines. “Players of any ability we welcome. And there’s definitely always an opportunity to continue to develop and grow and potentially make it to the Paralympic team one day.”

This article was first sent to subscribers of the Ottawa at the Paralympics Daily Newsletter. Sign up to receive it, for free, here.

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