Quesnel’s James Gemmell was chosen for Canada’s national sledge hockey team for the 2017/18 season. It’s the second time Gemmell has been named to the national team, after competing in the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, where his team won bronze.
Gemmell, 37, is one of 20 players named to this season’s team after the selection camp in Calgary at the beginning of the month.
He said the competition to make the team was tougher than ever this year.
“The competition is getting tougher and tougher, and I’m getting older and older… every year it gets harder. I’m hard on myself so I always assume I’m not going to make the team until I make the roster.”
Of the 20 named to the team, 17 (including Gemmell) played on the national team that won gold at the 2017 IPC World Para Hockey Championship in Gangneung, South Korea in April.
“It’s an amazing feeling to make the team again. Most kids growing up in Canada dream about getting the opportunity to play for Team Canada and wear that sweater.”
Sledge hockey is one of the most popular sports in the Winter Paralympic Games. The rules are essentially the same as hockey, but players sit on specially-designed sledges, consisting of skate blades on a metal frame that allow the puck to pass underneath. Sledge hockey players use two sticks, for shooting the puck and to push off the ice in order to speed up.
Gemmell, who has lived in Quesnel most of his life, grew up playing hockey. After an automobile accident in 2004 claimed his right leg, he relocated to Surrey for rehabilitation.
“I was sitting on the couch flipping through channels and I happened to see the gold medal game for the 2006 Paralympics on TV. That was about two years after I lost my leg. I saw a bunch of guys with missing legs like me, so I decided I wanted to get out and give it a shot.”
He found a sledge hockey program in Surrey and joined the team.
“I had a hockey background, so it was a matter of figuring out how to manoeuvre and skate with my arms. I came up quick; within a year I was at my first national team selection camp. But I realized at that time that I wasn’t very good, so I had to go home and work for another year or two.”
His work paid off. Defenseman Gemmell starts training this week, and said he’ll be in Toronto for a training camp from the beginning of October, working hard alongside his Team Canada colleagues.
Although Gemmell has made the national team, just 17 players will be chosen from the 20-man roster to compete in the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games in South Korea in March next year.
“Three guys will get left behind in Canada when the team leaves for the Paralympic Games. Everyone wants one of those spots. But the competition among ourselves makes the team better in the long run.”
When he’s not competing on the world stage, Gemmell is taking care of many of Quesnel’s four-legged friends at Ridgetop K9 Boarding Kennels, which he owns and operates. He is also involved with the local sledge hockey program, but he said it was recently cancelled due to lack of players.
“I was told by the City of Quesnel that they are going to shut down our sledge hockey program. But more recently I got an email from someone involved who wants to meet, so I’m thinking we might get it back…
“It’s hard because I’m gone half the hockey season with the national team, so it’s difficult for me to be really involved. But I want to promote the sport as much as I can, in the Cariboo region especially. The towns in this area are very hockey oriented and if we can keep it going, we can hopefully expand the program in as many communities as possible. It’s something I’m working on the side.”
Gemmell is the only national team member from B.C., but says the province has a way to go to develop its sledge hockey programming to match that of other provinces.
“B.C. is one of the farthest behind in the development of the sport. I’m trying to fight that and promote the sport more in our province.”
With a Paralympic medal, a world championship win and the potential to face off in the 2018 Paralympic Games, Gemmell is certainly raising the profile of the sport in the B.C. – and he’s making this city mighty proud too.