CALGARY — A para hockey team made up of talented Tier 1 players will be wearing Calgary Flames jerseys when they hit the ice at the upcoming 2019 USA Hockey Sled Classic which will be presented by the NHL in St. Louis next month.
Since 2010, participating NHL teams have been sending an affiliated para hockey team to compete in the round-robin tournament. The USA Hockey Sled Classic is one of the most prestigious adaptive hockey tournaments in the world second only to the Paralympic Games.
It's the first time the Flames have sponsored a team at the event.
"To be honest I wasn't aware there was a need for it. It's a no-brainer. To be able to partner with the team just feels like the right thing to do and now that we are hopefully we can continue and grow and build this relationship," said former NHL player Craig Conroy, now the assistant general manager of the Flames.
"This will be the first Tier 1 team from Canada and that's pretty exciting. I think they're going to win this thing. We're going to be cheering hard for them and they'll have the whole country cheering for them."
Para hockey, formerly known as sledge hockey, is one of the more popular events at the Winter Paralympic Games and became an official event in 1994.
Instead of skates, players use double-blade sledges that allow the puck to pass beneath. Players use two sticks, which have a spike-end for pushing and a blade-end for shooting.
Former Humboldt Bronco player Ryan Straschnitzki, who was paralyzed from the chest down in the 2018 bus crash, was named a member of the PX3 AMP Flames but won't be able to play since he's undergoing spinal surgery in Thailand.
"Unfortunately I won't make it this year but I'm going to get updates so I'm pretty excited for everyone," said Strachnitzki on Wednesday.
"I think it's a good step in the right direction for sledge hockey going around the nation. I'm pretty excited and these guys will do good in St. Louis."
His mentor, former national team member Chris Cederstrand, will be taking part as a player-coach. Cederstrand said this event is a big deal.
"It's absolutely huge for us to be able to go down there and really showcase how far sledge has come here," said Cederstrand, who played hockey in the WHL for the Red Deer Rebels and Swift Current Broncos, before being injured.
He said Straschnitzki has given the sport welcome publicity with his goal of making the national sledge hockey team.
"Ryan really has become the face of sledge hockey and I mean it's put a lot more eyes on the sport and you see an influx of people coming in wanting to give the sport a go. Having him out there being such a great ambassador for the sport has done wonders for it."
Micah Kovacevich has been playing the sport for 12 years and just moved to Calgary from Edmonton.
He said this is something that's long overdue.
"Definitely because there's a lot of American teams that are down there so it's kind of nice to see a Canadian team is doing this because it's really special to be able to do this," said Kovacevich.
The USA Hockey Sled Classic will run from Nov. 21 - Nov. 24.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 30. 2019.
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Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press