Is it sledge hockey or para ice hockey? Depends on who you ask

Sledge hockey rebrand concerns some Canadians

TORONTO — Greg Westlake has been telling people since 2003 that he plays sledge hockey. Now he’s not sure what to say when people ask about his sport. 

Six months ago the International Paralympic Committee made a decision to rebrand the 10 sports it governs. The changes, which officially came into effect Nov. 30, 2016, mean that Westlake’s sport is no longer to be recognized globally as sledge hockey.

He now plays para ice hockey and is currently participating at the first official world para ice hockey championship, in Gangneung, South Korea.

But Westlake, who’s been the Canadian national team captain since 2010, wonders if rebranding is beneficial for his sport after pushing the old name for so long. The sport made its Paralympic debut at the 1994 Lillehammer Games as sledge hockey.

“I spend the majority of my time as an advocate for Paralympic sport and try to draw positive change for the athletes, no matter what sport you play, and I just feel like (rebranding) is a step backwards with explaining what we do,” said Westlake.

The IPC laid out its reasons for rebranding the 10 IPC sports on its website at the time of the change.

“Firstly, we hope using para will make the sports more distinctive from the equivalent Olympic or able-bodied sports,” Alexis Shaefer, IPC commercial and marketing director, said in November. “Secondly, the new look for each sport allows for a more consistent and uniform promotion of para sport. Finally, this move ensures that the Agitos (Paralympic symbol) and the word Paralympic is only used in association with the Paralympic Games.”

The IPC’s statement went on to add that the word sledge, specifically, had to go following “requests from the sport’s community and due to the fact that it has different meanings across various languages.”

Westlake isn’t alone with his uneasiness, though.

Veteran national team member Brad Bowden, a pioneer for para ice hockey for two decades, fears that much of his work could go to waste.

“It’s been really hard just to get people to know what sledge hockey is,” said Bowden.

“I try to do stuff on the social media side, video blogs and stuff like that trying to promote the sport, so I’m pushing sledge hockey. For years no one knew what it was… It took years for people to know what it is.”

Westlake also thinks confusion already exists with the word para and that branding every sport with the label won’t help the athletes and their identities as individuals.

The Paralympics got its name because the Games runs parallel with the Olympics, but Westlake, a 30-year-old with prosthetic legs, said he’s often left explaining to people that the sports are for athletes with wide-ranging disabilities, and that the word “para” is already misleading to the general public.

“I already have to explain to people why I play in the Paralympics when I’m not paralyzed and now I have to explain why I don’t play paralyzed hockey,” said Westlake.

“I’ve done media stuff where I’ve shown up and there’s a chair for the reporter and no chair for me and they go, ‘we just assumed you’re in a wheelchair.’ So now we take our sport and change it to para ice hockey and I just feel like I’m going to have to explain on another level now.”

The IPC began its rebrand in the middle of the season, and it’s expected to take 12 months for the entire overhaul to happen. The sport is still recognized as sledge hockey on Hockey Canada’s website and its social media accounts, as well by Canada’s captain.

“Maybe in 20 years kids who started playing sledge hockey this year will know it as para hockey,” said Westlake. “But I’ll always know it as sledge.”

Canada, which last won world gold in 2013 and is coming off a silver in 2015, faces Germany on Wednesday. A victory would put them in the finals for the third straight world championship.

Kyle Cicerella, The Canadian Press

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