Fun, Fast-Paced Electric-Wheelchair Hockey
Canada is a hockey-crazy nation. Now, imagine our national pastime on…wheels?
Electric-wheelchair hockey, also called power hockey, is a dynamic, fast-paced sport. Though it follows the same general structure as its ice-based cousin, electric-wheelchair hockey is played in gymnasiums. Teams have five players on the court at a time, wielding plastic sticks, with two distinct desires: have fun and score goals. Games last 45 minutes (three 15-minute periods). You can play in fall, winter and spring in cities across Canada and the United States.
The sport was designed for players who have limited or no upper-body strength or mobility (such as people who have cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy or spina bifida), and use an electric wheelchair. Anyone who can significantly benefit from the use of an electric wheelchair in competitive sport and daily living is encouraged to participate.
The sport began in 1978, when a volunteer at Bloorview Children’s Hospital (now Bloorview Kids Rehab), Robb Carmichael, witnessed his first game of recreational wheelchair hockey. Seeing his students’ passion for hockey and recognizing the sense of purpose and pleasure for those who played it, Carmichael wanted to do something to help.
“The kids got so much benefit from this. They looked forward to it so much, yet there was no league, nothing,” Carmichael says. He and a team of volunteers began organizing regular Friday games between Sunny View Public School and Bloorview in Toronto. Carmichael founded the Canadian Electric Wheelchair Hockey Association (CEWHA) in 1980, and it eventually expanded to the eight teams that now play in the Toronto area.
Today, Calgary, London, Toronto, Victoria and other cities also have leagues (not all affiliated with the CEWHA) and many compete in a national tournament every two years. An American league, the US Electric Wheelchair Hockey Association (U.S. EWHA), has also developed, encouraging cross-border competition and spreading the sport’s positivity.
The core goal of the game – to provide a place for electric-wheelchair users of all abilities to participate in a safe, fun, competitive environment – has remained constant. The sport values the contribution of every player, regardless of mobility, age, gender, strength or experience.
To ensure that opposing teams have relatively equal mobility, players are ranked from one to five, based on their upper-body capabilities. “A Level 1 player is someone with a little bit of upper-body strength, someone that can swing the stick and take shots,” explains Dana Aube, general manager of the CEWHA.
Level 5 players have almost no upper-body strength. “For Level 5 players, we attach their stick to their chair, and they navigate their chair, and play that way,” says Aube. “Someone who is a Level 5 player will tend to play a defensive role, or goalie, both of which are essential components to any team.”
No matter what the level of ability, a player can make a contribution to his or her team, says Kevin Humphrey, 34, who has cerebral palsy. He has played electric-wheelchair hockey for nearly 20 years, and is president of the CEWHA’s Toronto chapter. “The player may not be able to hold a stick, but as long as they have some hockey knowledge, they can get in the way of the opposition, or block the ball with their chair very effectively, and be the most valuable player on the team because they can do that.”
Weekly games offer players a chance to explore friendly competition and experience the camaraderie and excitement of playing on a team. (It’s a lot of fun for spectators and volunteers, too – matches often conclude with pizza parties.)
Another benefit is that players have the opportunity to learn from each other – and not just about the sport. “We’ve had so many players tell us that they have been able to connect to people with similar disabilities,” says Aube. As a result, players see new possibilities for themselves and make positive changes in their lives.
Humphrey is one of those players. “The sport gave so much to me…just being able to compete in the sport at a high level…the team aspect, the competitiveness, being active – all of that has contributed to my general overall health and development,” he explains.
Faisal Burale, who has played for 15 years, is passionate about the sport. “Once you are given the chance to do something, you want to show the best of your ability, what you are able to do,” he says.
Burale admits to feeling nervous at first, but now he’s hooked. “Come see it, and you will not be able to stop going. Even if you don’t know the basics of the game, there are lots of experienced players who will make your transition easier.”
Humphrey says that bringing more people into the sport will enhance the quality of the game. He hopes that more electric-wheelchair users will benefit from the sport as he has. “I just want to see as many people as possible have the opportunity to experience [the benefits]. I can’t imagine if I did not get involved in the sport, how much I would have missed out on.”