CALGARY – Canada’s sledge hockey team has lost some 60 years of playing experience, with the departure of four veterans.
Captain and defenceman Jean Labonte (15 years with the team), forwards Herve Lord (19 years) and Todd Nicholson (18 years), and goaltender Paul Rosen (eight years) all formally announced their retirements Tuesday.
They leave with medals and memories—both good and bad. But even the setbacks came with a silver lining.
All four won gold at the 2006 Paralympics in Turin, Italy. And they leave after the 2010 Games in Vancouver, where Canada finished a disappointing fourth.
Despite the result, the 52-year-old Lord said he will always remember the passionate Canadian support at the Vancouver Games.
“It’s probably one of the highlights of my career, being able to play in your own country and having the full crowd behind you,” he said in an interview. “When you play overseas, you only have a few people in the stands cheering for you.
“But most of all, it’s having your family there. They live it, they see it, they see what it’s like. Then for us, it was just a huge excitement, and something that I’m going to cherish for the rest of my life.”
Canada was upset 3-1 by Japan in the semifinal and then lost a 2-1 heartbreaker to Norway in the bronze-medal game when the Norwegians scored with 3.6 seconds remaining.
“You have to remember in the last eight years, teams have been developing,” said Lord. “It’s just incredible how they’re getting better and better. And then that’s what makes the sport so interesting. It’s not just two or three countries that are always on top.”
Lord, who made his Canadian debut in 1991 in Oslo, said he had no idea that the sport would take him to such heights.
“I never even thought of that,” he said. “I thought it would never go anywhere. We had some ups and downs through my career in terms of this sport, trying to move forward.
“Sometimes we took a step forward and took two back. But since we’ve been under Hockey Canada (in 2004), the sport’s just been growing and growing.”
Lord was the longest-serving member of the Canadian team and he is one of only three men—along with Nicholson and Shawn Matheson—to play in all five Paralympic Games in which sledge hockey was involved (1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010), winning silver in 1998 and bronze in 1994 to go along with his 2006 gold.
He also has two world championship golds.
A native of St-Pamphile, Que., Lord scored 15 goals and added 16 assists in 93 games since sledge hockey was included under the Hockey Canada umbrella.
Labonte, a 41-year-old defenceman, spent 15 years on the national team, winning world titles in 2000 and 2008. He also has a Paralympic silver medal from 1998 and a bronze from the 1996 world championship.
The Gatineau, Que., native posted 14 goals and 36 assists in 104 games since 2004.
Nicholson, 41, joined the Canadian team in 1992. A five-time Paralympian, Nicholson won silver at the 1998 Games and bronze in 1994. The Kinburn, Ont., native, who also has two world titles on his resume, recorded 11 goals and 42 assists in 83 games since 2004.
Rosen, 50, was the oldest rookie in the history of Paralympic sledge hockey when he debuted on the international stage at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City at the age of 41. The goaltender spent nine seasons with Canada, finishing with a 55-15-1 record, a 1.04 goals-against average and 25 shutouts in 72 career games.
A native of Thornhill, Ont., Rosen was a three-time Paralympian (2002, 2006, 2010), winning gold in 2006. He also helped lead Canada to world championship gold in 2008.
“The dedication to themselves, their team and their sport made these men ideal ambassadors for sledge hockey, and their leadership on the ice and in the dressing room will be missed,”Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said in a statement.
Lord plans to keep training and playing in a house league and hopes to coach.
Having gained so much from the sport, he wants to return the favour.
“I want to give it back, all the knowledge I have and the experience. I want to be able to pass that on to the younger generation, for them to be able to compete at the level we competed.”