Summerside native is a longtime member of the Canadian sledge hockey team
It’s never dull going to the Paralympics.
Just ask Summerside native Billy Bridges, who was named to his fourth sledge hockey Paralympic squad on Saturday.
“No matter how secure you feel, it’s pretty amazing when the coach tells you you’re off to the Olympics,” said Bridges in an interview from Toronto.
A stalwart of the national sledge team (he’s been a member since 1998), the 29-year-old tasted gold in the 2006 Paralympics in Turin, Italy.
That’s sandwiched between fourth-place finishes in 2002 in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Vancouver in 2010. The latter pushed the once-dominant Canadians into the middle of the pack, turned over nearly half the roster and brought in a new head coach.
And four years later, the Canuck version for March 7 to 16 in Sochi, Russia, still isn’t the Paralympic lead dog, despite winning the 2013 world championship and the Four-Nations Cup held recently in Sochi.
“I wouldn’t say that (we’re the favourite). We just lost back-to-back games to the United States (in a three-game friendly) and Russia will be tough,” said Bridges, adding the Russian program was almost non-existent before the country won the Olympic and Paralympic bids. “Now, they have 17 amputees that are extremely good hockey players.”
Bridges’ resumé stretches more than 15 years of the sport internationally. Starting at 14 years old, he’s collected three world championship gold medals, three world sledge hockey challenge golds and a Paralympic gold. Throw in several silver and bronze medals and Bridges has enough alloy to build his own sledge.
But he’s seen programs pop up all over the world and it’s meant strong competition as countries pour money into their programs for Paralympic and worldwide glory.
It’s also meant Canada has had to sharpen its blades.
“We won the worlds last year, but that was the first time in six years. It lights a fire underneath you. We have so many new players that are so good at the sport. It keeps you on your toes,” said Bridges. “I usually take the summer off and get away from the sport, but this year we’re working out every single day. I’m more focused than I ever have been.”
The squad leaves for training in Calgary next week and then for Sochi at the end of February. Fellow national sledge veteran, Greg Westlake, is captain of the 17-man squad. Westlake’s national debut came in 2003.
Sixteen of the 17 players helped Canada win the gold at the 2013 worlds and eight were on the 2010 Paralympic squad.
So needless to say much is expected by players, coaches and fans.
“If we don’t come back with a medal, we’ll be extremely disappointed,” said Bridges.
The 2014 Olympic Winter Games go Feb. 6 to 23 in Sochi.
On the web at www.hockeycanada.ca.
A few facts about Billy Bridges, national sledge hockey team member and Summerside native:
u Age – 29.
u National Debut – 1998, at 14 years old he was the youngest player in Canadian national sledge history.
u Milestones – First national sledge player to score 200 points (2010), first to record 100 assists (2011).
u Other Stuff – Won seven consecutive national wheelchair basketball championships with Ontario (2000 to 2006); represented Canada at world junior wheelchair basketball championships in 2001 (won gold) and 2005; won a gold medal with Ontario in wheelchair basketball at the 1999 Canada Games.
u Favourite NHL Player – Alexander Ovechkin.
u Favourite NHL Team – Montreal Canadiens.