One of the most recent triumphs in sporting equality was the announcement that women’s ice sledge hockey would be a demonstration sport at the 2018 Pyeongchang Paralympic Winter Games. Announced in the aftermath of the inaugural IPC Ice Sledge Hockey Women’s International Cup (contested in autumn 2014 in Brampton, Ontario), it was an opportunity for the fans in attendance to sample and appreciate the talents from players the world over.
Among the competitors that graced the ice, there was a unified team from Europe. Residing from the Netherlands, goaltender Eline van der Gaag was among the members of the European squad that contributed to a bronze medal. Her efforts were testament to the European players’ commitment to help grow the sport.
At 51 years young, van der Gaag is the perfect complement to the United States goaltender, 62-year-old Karen Smith. Despite both being at an advanced age, which is not familiar in other traditional sports, both bring a remarkable level of competition and sportsmanship shattering traditional stereotypes about age.
“I first got involved in sledge hockey when there was a try-out in The Netherlands and I joined in. Since that (experience), I love the sport so much!”
Taking into account that van der Gaag is also a mother, it only adds to her positive influence for women of all ages. While many of the competitors are younger, the reality of ice sledge hockey (both men and women) is that all are welcome, regardless of age, building self-esteem and promoting a strong sense of community and teamwork.
“To play with and against younger girls at this level is a privilege I did not have in a “valid” sport. They keep me young!”
During September 2013, van der Gaag had an opportunity to shine in the international spotlight. Honefoss, Norway was the setting for a four-game exhibition series between Team Europe and the US contingent. Sharing goaltending duties with Annet Manniksma, van der Gaag performed valiantly against a challenging US opponent which managed to prevail in all four games. The encouragement given to her when she became a goaltender is one that she has never forgotten,
“My most favorite moment, playing for and with Team Europe was (the fact) that our coach Andreas gave me confidence by putting me in the net. I felt so good!”While Canada and the US have assembled national teams, the unified team from Europe has ensured that the sport has a foundation to build upon across the Atlantic. An additional benefit of a unified team is the fact that there is a mutual respect among the players from various nations. Their collective efforts will ensure that a continued commitment to develop the sport properly in Europe shall remain a priority.
As women continue to make inroads in the traditionally male dominated sport of ice sledge hockey, van der Gaag shares her thoughts on what will be needed to help continue the momentum the sport has gained, “(We need) to raise more money and show our sport more and more as a "full" sport, and that sledge hockey is not only a sport for men!!!”
Considering that the origins of the sport can be traced back to Sweden, the future of the sport must certainly include the establishment of national teams throughout the continent. While the sport will progress with time throughout Europe, the efforts of women like van der Gaag have helped place things in a positive direction. One cannot help but ponder the potential outcomes of the sport’s future with great optimism.
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Images obtained from Facebook