U.S. women’s sled hockey team wins historic World Challenge, major step in para hockey growth

·4 min read
Sled hockey players from the U.S. and Canada compete in the gold medal game at the 2022 Women's World Challenge
Sled hockey players from the U.S. and Canada compete in the gold medal game at the 2022 Women's World Challenge

A historic para ice hockey competition came to a close on Sunday in Green Bay, Wisconsin, with the U.S. women’s sled hockey team defeating Canada 5-1 to win the first ever Women’s World Challenge.

“It’s probably the greatest feeling in the world right now. It’s as if we won the Stanley Cup,” said U.S. captain Erica McKee.

The Americans were led in the final by Katie Ladlie, who scored two goals in the first four minutes of the game, plus another two tallies from Catherine Faherty and one from Lera Doederlein. U.S. goalie Hope Bevilhymer made three saves, while Tracey Arnold recorded 15 stops in net for the Canadians.

But the gold medal isn’t the only victory U.S. players are celebrating. Their long term goal is to see women’s para hockey added to the Paralympics, and this weekend’s World Challenge was a significant move towards achieving that goal.

“This is step one. It’s only going to continue to grow from here,” said U.S. alternate captain Sarah Bettencourt.

Para ice hockey (also known as sled hockey or sledge hockey) is technically a mixed gender sport on the Paralympic stage, but some athletes believe that co-ed label is currently doing more harm than good. Since para hockey debuted at the 1994 Winter Games, only three women have competed in the sport at the Paralympics.

The sport also features a perplexing rule that – while perhaps well intentioned – has been ineffective at best and harmful at worst. While men’s-only teams max out at 17 players, rosters are allowed to expand to 18 athletes if a woman is included.

“That rule, in theory, was attempting to be more inclusive towards women. In reality, it’s actually really inhibited the development of women’s para ice hockey because the argument has always been, ‘Well, there is a place for them. They just haven’t broken (onto) the roster yet.’ And in a full-contact sport, that’s a lot to ask,” Peggy Assinck, a member of the Canadian women’s team since it formed in 2007, told On Her Turf in March.

RELATED: In sled hockey, coed in name only, women are building their own Paralympic pipeline

The U.S. women’s sled hockey team was founded in 2007 after McKee was told she wasn’t allowed to make the U.S. national team because she was a woman. That year, the U.S. and Canada competed in the first ever women’s sled hockey game. In 2018, the U.S. women’s team moved under the umbrella of USA Hockey and was rebranded as a developmental team, while the Canadian women’s team continues to operate separately from Hockey Canada.

While the U.S. and Canada have led the way, what’s now holding women’s sled hockey back is that other nations haven’t kept up. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation that many women’s sports have experienced.

“It’s a circular problem. If we were in the Paralympics, everyone would create a team. But because we’re not, nobody’s creating a team. And unfortunately, that’s a really tough cycle to be kind of stuck in,” said Assinck.

Adding women’s sled hockey to the Paralympic program would help even out the gender balance at the Winter Games. Of the 564 Paralympians who competed this March in Beijing across all sports, only 138 (24%) were women.

<em>Maddy Eberhard (USA) and Alanna Mah (Canada) take a face off. (Photo: International Paralympic Committee)</em>
Maddy Eberhard (USA) and Alanna Mah (Canada) take a face off. (Photo: International Paralympic Committee)

Four women’s para hockey teams competed in Green Bay: the United States, Canada, Great Britain (a team started by Assinck), and Team World (composed of players from seven different nations). The event was sponsored by Citi as part of a new IPC initiative that aims to bridge the gap between grassroots and high performance programs.

“We’re really thankful for all they did to put this together,” said Bettencourt. “To be out there with all these players from around the world, it was amazing.”

Looking to the future, players want to make sure the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) continues to hold the Women’s World Challenge annually.

“Sometimes, throughout the years, it was hard to get motivated and have hope in things,” said U.S. alternate captain Kelsey DiClaudio. “To have it annually would do incredible things, not just for our team, but for everyone else around the world and especially the little girls that are watching this.”

“Other nations will see that this is a sport. This will be in the Paralympics. So get ready,” said Bettencourt, holding up her gold medal and adding, “Come try to take this away from us… That is the challenge. We challenge all those nations out there: C’mon, bring it.”

<em>The U.S. women’s sled hockey team celebrates winning gold at the 2022 Women’s World Challenge in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo: International Paralympic Committee)</em>
The U.S. women’s sled hockey team celebrates winning gold at the 2022 Women’s World Challenge in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo: International Paralympic Committee)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Thanks to Nicole Haase for providing video from the mixed zone in Green Bay.

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U.S. women’s sled hockey team wins historic World Challenge, major step in para hockey growth originally appeared on NBCSports.com