No place like home: Canada’s national team excited to take the ice at the Para Hockey Cup

There’s no place like home.

Canada’s national Para hockey team is set to compete on home ice for the first time in three years at the 2022 Para Hockey Cup in Bridgewater, NS, where it will look to continue its growth and get past the rival Americans.

The tournament was last held in 2019 in Paradise, NL, but was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Canadians will go up against the US, Italy and Czechia while trying to win their first gold medal at the tournament since 2013.

“We’re excited because it’s the first time now in three years we’ve been able to play on home soil in this tournament,” head coach Russ Herrington told CBC Sports. “I think the guys have really dialed in on their preparation.”

Canada’s 20-man roster boasts a mixture of Paralympic veterans and younger talent, with 10 players from the Paralympic team that won silver in Beijing.

Canada is coming off a silver medal at the inaugural International Para Hockey Cup in September, a four-team tournament held in Ostrava, Czech Republic. Canada fell to the United States in the gold-medal game, but the young group has come a long way since the selection camp earlier that month.

“I think we feel like we’re on the right track. I think we’ve identified the areas that we need to focus on in order to give ourselves a chance to compete against the best in the world,” Herrington said.

Canadian defenseman Zach Lavin battles for the puck with American forward Brody Roybal during the gold-medal game at the International Para Hockey Cup in Ostrava on Sept. 30. (@HockeyCanada/Twitter)

Three-time Paralympic medalist and team captain Tyler McGregor is one of the veterans leading the way in Bridgewater, and he is excited to finally compete in front of Canadian fans again.

“So excited to compete at home again. We’ve had such an inconsistent schedule for the past two, three years,” McGregor said.

“I’ve always said that the best place in the world to play — regardless of where we’ve traveled and where we will travel in the future — is in Canada. I think nobody is more passionate about hockey than our home fans.”

Each team will play three preliminary-round games. Canada will open its tournament against Italy on Sunday at 2 pm ET, followed by games against Czechia on Monday at 6 pm ET and the US on Wednesday at 6 pm ET in a rematch of the Paralympic final.

New chapter

It’s an exciting time for the Canadian squad, with a new head coach and a fresh injection of talented players who are buying into the program and growing together. Herrington was named head coach in late August after serving as an assistant for seven years, taking over from longtime bench boss Ken Babey.

Herrington has been excited to see the team’s major growth since selection camp, with a trusted group of veterans guiding the way.

“The overall mentorship that the entire veteran corps has shown to the new players has really helped them acclimatize quickly and really pick up on the concepts and the pace with which we want,” Herrington said.

“It’s been an exciting few months for us. That’s why we feel confident with the trajectory that we’re on. But we know it’s a long process, we know we’re still playing the long game.”

With 10 years of national team experience, McGregor has seen the ups and downs that come along with competing against the world’s best talent. He also sees a bright future for the squad, saying the young players are committed to the process while also bringing new energy.

“We have a very young team this year, which is exciting. The youthful energy within our team is awesome. Everybody has this beginner’s mindset, and we came into this season really excited to learn, really excited to grow,” McGregor said.

“Seeing people’s commitment and their discipline to our training program and our preparation, both with the team and away, within the first two months of the season has been exceptional and really exciting for the future of our team in our program.”

Canadian captain Tyler McGregor controls the puck during pre-tournament action against the United States before the International Para Hockey Cup in September. (@HockeyCanada/Twitter)

Defensive mindset

The Canadians went 3-2 at the International Para Hockey Cup, with both losses coming to the United States. It was a good learning experience and a solid debut for the 2022-23 team, which has placed extra emphasis on the defensive side of the game since Herrington’s promotion.

Herrington said their defensive approach will be one of the keys to defeating the Americans.

“We have to play well defensively; that’s been a major focus for us. Just defensive commitment, our positioning, protecting the good ice and forcing teams to the bad ice, and having the mindset that our offense is going to start from strong defensive play , ” Herrington said.

Liam Hickey is another veteran forward who will be looked upon to lead in Bridgewater, and he has seen the new defensive mindset make an impact right away this season.

“When we play good defense it transitions into good offense. That’s been a key for us lately, especially at the start of this season with coach [Herrington] coming in He really harps on the importance of playing good defense, and we’ve already seen positive results that come from that.”

Hickey said the team learned a lot at the tournament in September, which provided valuable early experience for the new roster.

“That was the first big tournament for us as a new group, and it was really exciting to go into that with eyes wide open and not really know what to expect. We came out of that with a lot of things that we can build on “Hickey said.

But positives aside, Hickey and the other veterans are understandably tired of falling short in gold medal games. The Americans have won gold at the last six editions of the Para Hockey Cup.

“It’s hard to ignore the fact that we haven’t won gold at this tournament in too many years. It’s been a while and we’ve lost a lot to the Americans in this tournament. We’re pretty tired of being in a gold medal game and coming up with a silver.”

The team knows what they are up against, but they are prepared to meet the challenge head on.

“They’re a fast, physical team, and we need to play that style and play better. We’re looking forward to another opportunity to do that; we always have good games against those guys,” Hickey said.

WATCH | Canada falls to US in International Para Hockey Cup final:

United States shuts out Canada to win IPC Cup

The Americans took home the gold with a 4-0 win over Canada to win the International Para Hockey Cup in Czechia.

While Canada went 2-0 against Czechia at the tournament in September, they haven’t faced Italy in years. The Italians are also expected to present a challenge, as they are building towards the 2026 Paralympics in Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, with extra investment going into their Winter programs.

“They’re working hard, they’re investing a lot. They’re really trying to accelerate their progress, being the next host nation,” Herrington said.

The Canadians will look to continue progressing in Bridgewater, with the first goal being a spot in the semifinals, beginning Dec. 1. The bronze and gold-medal games are on Dec. 3.

Canada’s schedule

  • Sunday, Nov. 27: Canada vs. Italy (2 p.m. ET)
  • Monday, Nov. 28: Canada vs. Czech Republic (6 p.m. ET)
  • Wednesday, Nov. 30: Canada vs. United States (6 p.m. ET)

Canada’s roster

Forwards:

  • #4 James Dunn — Wallacetown, Ont.
  • #8 Tyler McGregor — Forest, Ont.
  • #9 Corbyn Smith — Monkton, Ont.
  • #13 Vincent Boily — Alma, Que.
  • #19 Dominic Cozzolino — Mississauga, Ont.
  • #20 Jacob Leblanc — Moncton, NB
  • #21 Alexis Auclair — Saint-Hyacinthe, Que.
  • #22 Matteo Pellizzari — Vancouver
  • #23 Liam Hickey — St. John’s
  • #26 Anton Jacobs-Webb — Gatineau, Que.
  • #98 Mathieu Lelièvre — Lewis, Que.

Defensemen:

  • #2 Rod Crane — Clarksburg, Ont.
  • #5 Tyrone Henry — Ottawa
  • #7 Zach Lavin — Essex, Ont.
  • #11 Adam Dixon — Midland, Ont.
  • #29 Micah Kovacevich — Edmonton
  • #61 Rob Armstrong — Erin, Ont.
  • #92 Auren Halbert — Calgary

Goaltenders:

  • #30 Jean-François Huneault — Saint-Eustache, Que.
  • #31 Dominic Larocque — Quebec City

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