AMHERST – Brad Blenkhorn is excited to play hockey for his country next month, but he sees his participation on Canada’s national amputee team as more than an opportunity for himself.
Missing his lower right leg since he was 18 months old, the 29-year-old has never let himself miss out on what life has to offer, and he has excelled at numerous sports. He hopes that events such as the world championships in Montreal, Que. will encourage other young amputees to find similar opportunities.
He thinks of 13-year-old Nicholas Giroux of Sackville, N.B., who lost part of his right leg a year ago in a bus accident, and was already playing hockey again this past winter.
“Here he is playing in net 10 months later,” said Blenkhorn, who drove over to practice with the youngster. “It’s phenomenal to see him play net, let alone walk. That inspires you, to see a young fella push that hard.”
He also thinks of eight-year-old Noah McLeod, who was born without a hand, and dropped the puck during the national team’s recent exhibition game in Kitchener, Ont.
“He wanted to start playing hockey, and they didn’t know what devices he could use, and his family was ecstatic to come down,” he said. “It gives you a good feeling because you’re going to see this guy at a (training) camp. It’s great to see young kids out at development camps and the recreation camps we have.”
Blenkhorn has no memory of losing his leg in a ride-on lawn mower accident when he was a toddler, nor does he ever remember it holding him back from whatever he wanted to do. He began playing hockey at the age of three, and stayed with the local minor hockey system for the next 11 years, until he decided to trade in cold rinks for warm gyms and take up basketball.
He played basketball all through high school and later excelled at volleyball, going on to play for the national disabled team for two years after graduating from school. He has also excelled in sports such as baseball, soccer and skiing over the years, all with the use of a prosthetic on his right leg.
“I didn’t find it held me back a whole lot,” said Blenkhorn. “I just tried to be like everyone else, and to be myself. I love playing sports, and it didn’t stop me from doing it.”
It was during a three-year stay in Alberta that his interest in hockey returned, stepping on skates for the first time in seven years and playing in outdoor rinks.
Back in Amherst, he came across an article on Justin Gauthier, from Nova Scotia’s South Shore. With an amputation similar to Blenkhorn’s, Gauthier had made it to the national amputee hockey team, and played with the team in a world championship event in Europe.
“I’m not really nervous. Everyone has put the work in for the past two years.” - Brad Blenkhorn
“I heard about that and got mad at myself for not playing for so long,” he recalled.
Blenkhorn tried out for the national team for the first time in 2006, in preparation for the world championships in Latvia that year, but failed to make the team. More determined than ever, he asked the coaches what he needed to work on. He worked at it, and earned a spot on the roster the following year.
He played with a team at the 2008 world championships (the event is held biannually) in Marlboro, Mass., U.S.A., and was a part of their memorable undefeated gold medal run there.
Now, with the excitement of being the host team, he said he is anxious to get on the ice in front of what promises to be the largest crowds he has ever played for, with upwards of 2,000 people expected for Canada’s games.
“I just want to get it started,” he said. “I’m not really nervous. Everyone has put the work in for the past two years.”
With most of the 2008 team returning, the winger hopes to be one of the team’s contributors on the scoreboard, while also playing a responsible defensive game.
The tournament will include five teams – Canada, U.S.A., Finland, Latvia and a “world team” made up of players from various countries.
The defending champions are expected to be the favourites once again, but Blenkhorn is taking nothing for granted. The Canadian team also has inspiring gold medal wins by both the national men’s and women’s teams at the Vancouver Olympics to draw from.
“We’ve never lost a game in international amputee competition, and our biggest goal is keeping that streak alive, to definitely not lose anything on our home soil,” he said.
But the biggest hope is that the event will attract more attention to amputee hockey and thereby create more opportunities for children like Nicholas and Noah. There is already talk of setting up a regional system, with enough players for regional and national championships, and possibly a North American championship that would include several American teams and be played in the off-years of the world championships.
“The main focus for all of us is to grow the sport,” he said.