As part of a long term strategy to medal at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games, Great Britain are setting themselves a target of two group victories at the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) 2011 Ice Sledge Hockey European Championships which get underway this weekend.
Britain are one of 10 teams set to compete in Solleftea, Sweden, and have picked a young and inexperienced squad of 15 for the Championships hoping that in years to come they will see significant benefits.
“We’re using these Championships as a development opportunity and to give the team some much needed experience,” explained Goalkeeper and 20 cap veteran Matt Lloyd.
“Rather than look for big results in Sweden, we’re looking long term. Our aim is to qualify for the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games and then medal in 2018.
“We’re taking eight fairly inexperienced players out to Sweden to give them the inspiration and motivation for years to come. Hopefully, they’ll see the level we need to reach in the future to compete with the best in the world.”
Amongst the new players in Great Britain’s squad are a number of wounded soldiers who have taken up the sport in the last 12 months.
Last year as part of a UK wide initiative called Battle Back, which aims to identify adventure and sporting opportunities for wounded service personnel, a number of soldiers attended the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games. Whilst there they experienced the thrill of Winter Sports and a number soon fell in love with Ice Sledge Hockey.
Matt Lloyd said: “The sport is perfect for them as it’s very fast and physical. It’s normal for our guys on the ice to be hitting speeds of 40km/h and hitting a puck at 100km/h.
“Ice Sledge Hockey has an aggressive edge - when you’re hit in this sport you certainly know about it – and it certainly gets the adrenalin going. We hope by involving them in these Championships they will spread the word about the sport whilst learning from some of the experienced players in the squad.”
Two of the experienced players Lloyd is referring to are Gary Farmer and Karl Nicholson, both veterans of previous Paralympic Winter Games, and players to watch in the upcoming Championships
Matt Lloyd said: “Gary has played the sport for 10 years, is very skilled and extremely imposing on the ice. I’d say his desire and determination makes him our equivalent of Martin Johnson, the former England Rugby Union World Cup winning captain.
“Karl on the other hand is extremely quick and understands the game really well after playing the sport for 15 years. Together their experience will be invaluable to some of the new guys.”
Drawn in a group of five teams, Great Britain are expecting a tough time of it next week especially against defending Champions and Vancouver bronze medalists Norway. Their Head Coach however has set a target of two victories - a goal Lloyd believes is realistic and achievable against Germany and the Netherlands.
Matt Lloyd said: “I’d be shocked if Norway didn’t win gold again this time round, they really are the team to beat.
“To get a result against them would be like a lower league club beating Manchester United. However, within three to four years we think we can compete against them and beat them. They have an ageing team, with an average age of 37, where as our guys are around 30 so have time to develop.
“Germany didn’t qualify for Vancouver despite being involved in the bronze medal game in Torino in 2006 so I’m not sure what to expect of them in Sweden apart from they’ll be out to prove a point.
“As for the Dutch, they are the team we beat on a regular basis but that stands for nothing going into a major competition. I know their sole target is to beat us but we want to beat them and the Germans to finish third in our group.”
More than 130 players from 10 different countries are set to compete in the 2011 IPC Ice Sledge Hockey European Championships, the biggest event since last year’s Vancouver Paralympic Games.
The 10 competing teams have been split into two groups of five.
The groups are:
Although the first game takes place this Saturday (12 February), the Opening Ceremony for the event which is part of the Paralympic Winter World Cup will not take place until 15 February and will be attended by IPC Honorary Board Member HRH Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden.