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In France, the long quest for sledge hockey pioneers

It’s always the same gestures. First he puts on protections, his jersey and his helmet, like any hockey player. But then, Thierry Schneider, paraplegic, goes from his armchair to his sledge, installed on a trolley that he himself tinkered. He straps his legs inside a tub and rests his shoes on a homemade toe-clip. “This system allows me to hoist myself onto the ice for the staggering sum of 5 euros at Emmaüs”he laughs.

At his side, this February 12, in Poitiers, the other para-hockey players of the Poitevin Stadium also take place in their sled. Some are helped by a volunteer, others by their teammates. The mix between people with disabilities and able-bodied people is one of the French particularities of this discipline, which is still trying to develop in France after fifteen years of repeated failures.

Since 2018, the French Ice Hockey Federation (FFHG) has obtained the delegation from the Ministry of Sports. But there are only 65 para-hockey licensees, including 35 “handisports”, distributed among a dozen clubs (Rouen, Angers, Clermont or recently Franconville…).

Thierry Schneider, one of the team's athletes, begins to equip himself before training.  Poitiers, February 12, 2022.

While para-hockey has been part of the Paralympic Games since 1994, a new French team was formed and played its first friendly tournament in December 2021. However, there is still a long way to go before hoping to join the top tier of the Games. Paralympics, whose final is scheduled for Sunday March 13 in Beijing. Especially since at the international level, it is necessary to respect eligibility criteria, namely to be suffering from a handicap on the lower part of the body (in general either paraplegic or amputated). But the goal is ambitious: qualifying for the Games in 2026.

First section founded in 2004 in Cholet

Installed on their machines, the ten para-hockey players of the Poitevin Stadium move or twirl according to the level of each. They are equipped with two sticks of about 70 centimeters: at one end, small metal spikes to push on the ice; at the other end, an adapted pallet which allows to handle the puck. “You have to have strength in your arms”confides Thierry Schneider.

Para hockey players benefit from having a multitasking brain to combine coordination and motor skills. The contacts are supported, the “checks” frequent. “My team scores, it makes me happysays the fifty-year-old. I fall, it makes me laugh, it reminds me of childhood memories, when as a kid, we took a garbage bag to slide on the snow. »

Read also Paralympics 2022: with Daviet and Montaggioni, France collects two new gold medals

Sledge hockey was invented by two Swedes in the 1960s. The discipline was introduced at the Paralympic Games in Lillehamer in 1994. The United States have won four times in seven editions.

In France, the first section was only founded in 2004. In Cholet, Liliane Morinière was at the time a volunteer with the Dogs club. “We wanted to do something for people with disabilities and we found sledge hockey”remembers the one who is now in charge of the development of para-hockey with the FFHG.

Para ice hockey players in training at the Poitiers ice rink, January 12, 2022.
The sledges used by para-hockey athletes.

Other sections had tried in vain the adventure. In particular because the vagueness reigned over who should organize this practice at the national level. “Nobody ever really cared about it. Everything remained in the state of a draft of initiatives”recognizes Christian Fémy, director of winter parasports for the French Handisport Federation. “The Paralympic policy and the delegations given to different federations have given new impetus”, emphasizes Liliane Morinière.

“The day I am told we are going to the Games with a para-hockey team, I will be in heaven”, assures Christian Fémy. The objective of the 2026 Games nevertheless appears difficult to maintain. In December 2021, the tournament in Poland ended in defeats without appeal. “It was the 16and para hockey trophy. So we’re a little late. raises the Choletais Franck Cadonna, captain of the first tricolor team. In the second game, it was already better. We grew up in a weekend. »

“We are sorely lacking in players”

The fifteen members of the France collective are motivated. “We all take the project to heart. The federation does not yet have big budgets so that we can meet every monthsays Franck Cadonna. We manage to play more games together. » In Poitiers, in mid-February, three players from outside took part in training before playing the next day in a match scheduled against Tours.

Not yet called up with the Blues, but part of a larger group, the Dijonnaise Sophie Werner embodies this dedication to the cause. The only para-hockey licensee of her club, she travels around France to be able to train with other clubs: “I’ll look for ice time where I can find it. »

Responsible for the para section of the Poitevin Stadium, Hugues Capderroque points out a real problem: “An hour of ice on a skating rink is worth gold. When you come up with three disabled people to put on the ice, often the answer is no. You have to make your hole. » In Poitiers, President Ronan Nédélec was already aware thanks to his “disabled dad”, founder of a disabled sports club in Brittany. He did not hesitate to launch his section in 2018. With that of Clermont, the Poitevine ice rink is the second candidate to host the para-hockey sports center and Blues matches.

Athletes during a training session at the Poitiers Ice Rink, February 12, 2022.

Thierry Schneider first pleads for the expansion of the player base: “It’s good to be ambitious and to create a French team. I hope it’s not to the detriment of the development of the practice. » He is followed by Franck Cadonna, who notes “a lack of players. »

The pioneers of para-hockey are not discouraged. ” Every time I meet someone in a wheelchair or on crutches, I go see them. I recruited five of them”launches the Poitevin captain, pointing to his teammate Revan, “ stolen from wheelchair basketball. »

In spring, the organization of the first championships of France should give a little more visibility to the practice. “It will be a form of recognition”, admits Liliane Morinière. So that as many people as possible know that you no longer need to be standing on skates to play hockey.

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