"After the matches the spectators were invited to try out the sport for themselves. The enthusiasm for it was such that there wasn't enough equipment to go round! Getting my son, Rafael, off the ice was a nightmare! He loves this sport!!!"
Over the last few years I've come to realise that I don't completely switch off from the job I love. Even during a lazy weekend at home I'm on the lookout for anything connected to Para sports.
Well sometimes it pays off.....
A couple of weeks ago I chanced upon an A4 poster at our local ice rink in Le Mans, France. We were only there because it was my son's 13th birthday and he wanted the family to go ice skating! The poster was promoting demonstration Para ice hockey matches and tryouts to be held the following weekend. That was it; the following Saturday afternoon was to be dedicated to Para ice hockey.
As I was going along to spectate I figured I might as well enjoy a 'busman's holiday' and take some photos. I got in touch with the Le Mans Ice Hockey Club who put me in touch with Line Moriniere, the president of the Pays de la Loire Ice Hockey League. We spoke briefly on the phone and agreed to meet up at the event.
Line, along with her husband, has been involved in ice hockey since the 1990s. She'll be retiring in four years’ time and has big ambitions for Para ice hockey in France in the meantime.
Para ice hockey has been around for quite a while. Its origins date back to the 1960s in Sweden. It made its Paralympic Games debut at Lillehammer in 1994 by which time Sweden, Norway, Great Britain, Canada, USA, Estonia and Japan had established national teams. Now the list of national teams totals 17 as the sport goes from strength to strength.
But what about the country I live in? What about France? Since my introduction to the sport five years ago I have always wondered if Para ice hockey even existed here? This is what I found out chatting with Line.
Currently there are very few teams in France; Cherbourg, Cholet, Tours, Rouen, Poitiers, and Clermont-Ferrand; and they were all present playing in the demonstration matches in Le Mans! The aim of the evening was to encourage more ice hockey clubs around France to engage in Para ice hockey and to attract potential players with the intention of creating more teams. After the matches the spectators were invited to try out the sport for themselves. The enthusiasm for it was such that there wasn't enough equipment to go round! Getting my son, Rafael, off the ice was a nightmare! He loves this sport!!!
While I waited for Rafael's arms to give up I continued talking to Line. We discovered that we have a friend in common – Gregory Leperdi of the Italian Para ice hockey team. It turned out that upon their return from Sochi  Gregory and the team accepted an invitation to travel to Caen and Rouen to play against a French team comprising players from Clermont-Ferrand and Cholet. The result of which was that Caen and Rouen opened up Para Ice Hockey sections in their clubs. The Italian team even came back to France, this time Montpellier, to face the French side again! Since then Line has remained in touch with Gregory and the Italian team benefiting from their support and advice.
All this led to me asking if France had an official national team. The answer was that, for the moment, there isn't one. Right now, Line is concentrating her efforts on getting ice hockey clubs around France to simply engage in Para Ice Hockey by staging demonstration matches and tryouts like this one in Le Mans. With more teams it would then be possible to stage a French Championships and from here to build a national team.
Making all of this happen isn't without its challenges. Line explained to me that just getting people interested is one major hurdle alongside securing time on the ice for training. There is also the considerable investment in equipment to be taken into account, but the Pays de la Loire ice hockey league has been able to solicit financial help from regional government and from charities. While there is still a long way to go Line is confident that she'll realise her dreams before hanging up her skates.
As for me, a Para sports photographer, I'm really pleased to be getting involved with this sport at its grass roots in France. It's not all work and no play, you know...I did have to chase Rafael around the ice to get him out of the hockey luge so we could go home!