The inaugural Para Ice Hockey Women's World Challenge resulted in a title for Team USA, but the tournament will be remembered for so much more than the final results.
“I want to emphasize how much of a huge part of history this is,” said U.S. forward and championship game-winning-goal scorer Katie Ladlie.
An event more than a decade in the making, the tournament, which took place in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Aug 26-28, was the first ever women’s tournament sanctioned under World Para Ice Hockey. That distinction is an important step in gaining recognition, attention and funding for women’s Para ice hockey.
While many players at the event expressed a goal of seeing women’s sled hockey accepted as a sport in the Paralympics, Michelle LaFlamme, World Para Ice Hockey manager, is focused on the bigger picture of bringing adaptive ice hockey to as many women as possible.
“The Women's World Challenge is here to stay and it's the first step of many to get to our goal, which is to increase women's participation in Para ice hockey,” LaFlamme said. “We are committing to coming back with the second edition in 2023 and in 2024 for the third edition.
“By growing women's sled hockey, that's really going to show countries that they should put more emphasis into their female athletes. I think that's what this whole weekend was about, was just making sure that we grow and support our female adaptive athletes.”
The tournament also focused on opportunities for women around the tournament other than as rostered athletes on the competing teams. All the officials were women, as were technical delegates and other off-ice officials.
“I really wanted to showcase the opportunities for women in sports, not just athletes,” LaFlamme said. “Whether you are a team doctor, a coach, a manager, a scorekeeper, there's a way for you to get involved in Para ice hockey.”
There are currently just three countries with full women’s sled hockey teams: the U.S., Canada and Great Britain. At the Women’s World Challenge, individual athletes representing seven different countries took to the ice as Team World. Many of them had little to no experience with the sport or playing it as part of a team. The group had just three practices together to create a team, while overcoming a wide gap in sled hockey knowledge and common languages.
That’s what makes the team’s third-place finish so special, said Hope Magelky, one of several U.S. players who helped fill out the Team World roster. She now considers her Team World teammates her sisters.
“I am beaming with pride at how every single time we hit the ice, there was so much improvement,” she said. “This was about coming together, getting these girls fired up and trying to share my love for the game with them so they can go back home and share their newfound love of the game with other women.”
One of her teammates was Latvian Dina Grinberga, who tries to drum up interest in sled hockey at open ice sessions in her home country. The Women’s World Challenge was her first opportunity to play real games as part of a team.
“I think that's the best option, to play with veteran players so that you can learn from them, you can gain from them, and you can have someone to compete with,” she said.
World Para Ice Hockey was committed to putting on a top tier event to set the standard of what is possible and what the athletes can and should expect. For LaFlamme, the weekend wasn’t just about learning on the ice. It was also about teaching coaches, GMs, team personnel and everyone who would work behind the scenes all they will need to know to successfully run their own events.
“We could wait for the nations to have their own national teams, or we can help,” said LaFlamme. “We have representatives from seven nations on the world team and our goal is that they go back home and they say to their other teammates, ‘We have something to work toward.’”
The elite feeling of the tournament was evident throughout the weekend, Magelky said. The loud crowd for the title game included a raucous local youth hockey team and the St. Norbert College women’s team.
“The atmosphere was insane. I've never played in front of a crowd that big before and I was super impressed with how many people showed up to watch hockey,” Magelky said. “This is something you can watch. This is a sport. This is entertaining. This is skilled hockey.”
With all the build-up to the Challenge, Ladlie said she and her teammates knew it was important, but that they really felt the magnitude of what a big deal the weekend was right before their very first game and then again as they prepared for the championship game.
“We realized that whether we win or not, we're here as a team,” Ladlie said. “All of our hard work has been really working towards this moment of being recognized as athletes on a world stage.”
There was a sense of accomplishment around Team USA for being the team that really pushed this to fruition, but also plenty of introspection on the future. The Americans range in age from teenagers up to 50-somethings. For many of the current players, the long timeline for raising the profile of the sport and getting it included in the Paralympics means they are fighting for something they themselves may never get to experience.
“We've all come to the realization that we may not be at the Paralympics in the future. We may not get to play,” Ladlie said. “But it's really about growing the sport. We are willing to go through the hoops and go through the steps to get to the Paralympics so that the future generation of female sled hockey players don't have to. They’ll get the opportunity that we may not get a chance to have, but I think that itself is so rewarding.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.