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A (hockey) blast from the past

On the eve of the Gold Medal round between the Tigers and Jaguars (tomorrow night!! ahh!!!), how’s this for a #ThrowbackThursday? A little over 20 years ago (May 2, 1999), the London Free Press came to interview 15-year-old me about the London division of the CEWHA.

It is hard to quantify the role wheelchair hockey has played in my life. Back when this article was written, I would spend all week thinking about, planning for and looking forward to Friday night. The 2.5h drive from Port Elgin to London would always seem like an eternity, anxious/nervous to get on the court, while the drive home after would fly by…usually because I was fast asleep before passing Arva.

While I’ve had to take some years off here and there, wheelchair hockey is still a big part of my life – I now get to take groups of students from my class at King’s University College at Western University every year to experience this unique sport firsthand. Most of them are left in awe. Some of them leave terrified (the sport is a bit rougher than most expect).

More than just Canada’s game, wheelchair hockey was the first team sport that I could play competitively. It was also the first adapted sport that I could genuinely excel at based on my own skill and not because of the charity or pity of others. Until wheelchair hockey came about, there were no other team-based sports for people with my level of impairment. Too weak to play sledge or wheelchair basketball, I was left to solo sports where I missed out on that all-important ‘team bonding’ experience. I didn’t get that feeling of ‘belonging’ to a team until finding wheelchair hockey in grade 7. Wheelchair hockey was also the place where I would form life-long friendships with teammates of all ages, where I would learn from crip experts who had battled for disability rights before me and where, now, I get to carry on that crip mentorship tradition with young players just entering the league.

What hit me the hardest reading this old article, though, was the little reminder of how proud my parents were (are) of me and how much my family sacrificed to let me do the things I stubbornly wanted to do. Hours of driving through horrible weather, my parents ended their long work week month after month by driving me to London to play a game I love. They even managed to trick me into doing well in school through my love for the game. In part, I chose Western University for my undergraduate, in part, so I could be closer to wheelchair hockey.

I hope in my life I am able to love and care as radically, constantly, and fully as my parents do for my sister and me. My parents were, are and will always be the absolute best.

Back in May of 1999, I wonder if 15-year-old Jeff dedicated that double hat-trick to them? If he didn’t, 20 years later, I can confidently say that one and all the others were all for and because of you, Gail & Dave.


(Disabled) Sports

Skimming through my twitter feed, as I do before bed most evenings, I was a little disheartened to discover the following story from the local Metro Newspaper’s twitter feed, entitled: “Canada advances to World (Sledge) Hockey final.”

Why the brackets? I’m guessing it is supposed to be a joke, although I’m not exactly sure why it would be funny. At best, the individual controlling the Metro twitter feed1 felt that perhaps more people would read the story this way because the deployment of brackets helps to separate it from other tweets about “Canada” and “hockey,” of which there are many. But at the same time this delineation is exactly what makes this tweet so problematic — we still feel the need to segregate the achievement of Paralympic athletes from those of presumptively “real” athletes; athletes who aren’t disabled at all, but rather, are the pinnacle of human physical achievement. Coverage of disabled sports is often wrapped in this sort of “gold star for effort” coverage, where the subconscious objective of the article is more to celebrate an individual being an athlete despite being disabled rather than merely celebrating athletic achievement. Of course, sports journalism has always had its narratives, perhaps none more overwrought than the underdog triumph fable, but the division of “real” sports and “disabled” sports is a relatively new trope caused by sports media realizing they could no longer ignore Paralympic/Special Olympic sport (largely because of the advocacy of my two favourite Joshs–Josh Vander Vies and Josh Cassidy 2 ) while at the same time not knowing exactly how to cover these stories. After all, if it’s about disability than it’s gotta be different. Sports journalism isn’t the only culprit here, as there is always the desire to temper achievements with the addendum of disability: Stephen Hawking isn’t a scientist…he’s a disabled Scientist!

Ultimately, how we cover disabled sports, specifically this seemingly innocent tweet by the London Metro team, helps to elucidate the oft non-apparent fault lines in our acceptance of disability. We talk so much about acceptance and inclusion in Canada, yet even in covering a story we can all understand and empathize with (athletic achievement) we still must keep a healthy distance (pun intended) between “us” and “them.” Only once we are ready to grant disability access into the realm of “normal,” understanding that people truly do come in all shapes and sizes, will we finally be able to talk about sledge hockey without the addendum.

  1. Note: I’ve been contacted by the local Metro and it was, in fact, not done locally but was tweeted by someone at the national office. The headline was apparently taken from the article pushed out on the wire by the Canadian Press, also picked up by Sportsnet here sans brackets.
  2. Although note that both of these fine gentleman brand themselves on their websites with terms like “motivators” and “leader,” unlike most mainstream athletes who wrap themselves in more traditional terms around athletic performance. I’d argue here that the Joshs feel the pressure to be more than just an athlete…they must also be inspirations