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Athletes need more recognition, P.E.I. sledge hockey founder says

Eric Payne

Eric Payne knows just how drastically life can change in a single moment. But another thing the disability advocate, public speaker, and athlete knows well is the healing value of a sense of humour.

The Paralympics did not get close to enough media coverage this year, he said, adding: People need to know just how much it takes for these athletes to get to the world stage.

There is still a stigma that the quality of the event is not as good. And sometimes they have to overcome illness, injury, accessibility and attitudes, he said.

“It is hard to get over this hump because most people do not think they will ever be in his position,” he said. “I tell people I know I will never be like them; I will never be able-bodied again.

“[But] they can absolutely be like me though, in the blink of an eye.”

Before 2005, Payne was a serving member of the Canadian Armed Forces. After 9/11, he had done a tour on the HMCS Halifax in 2001’s Operation Apollo.

“I had recently returned from a six-month tour of duty in Canada's North, Ellesmere Island, Canadian Forces Station Alert.”

For his entire life, Payne had been highly active, and loved to play team sports and ride his motorcycle.

But in 2005, everything changed when his motorcycle crashed.

He survived, but there was a cost. One of his legs had to be amputated above the knee.

“After amputation, I was struggling to find what my new normal was going to look like,” he said.

No longer able to serve in the military, Payne found himself released from service.

He and his family struggled to navigate issues left in the wake of his accident. And future employment was uncertain, he said.

But in the fall of 2006, Payne joined a wheelchair basketball team with Parasport P.E.I.

Though he soon found he did not excel at basketball, the connections he made in the parasport community kept him coming back. Through these connections, it became easier for him to acknowledge his new reality.

In May of 2007, the Canadian Air Force introduced a program called Soldier On, where wounded and injured members could regain active lifestyles.   

At the launch, he discovered something truly exciting.

“I had assumed, up ‘til then, that hockey was now over for me. But I was introduced to different Paralympic sports, including sledge hockey.”

Stand-up hockey after an above-the-knee amputation is daunting, Payne said. But he realized sledge hockey meant he could play a sport he had enjoyed all of his life.

At the time, Parasport and Recreation P.E.I. had no sledge hockey program. So when Payne was asked to become a member of the committee for the National Sledge Hockey Team during 2008’s World Sledge Hockey Challenge, his work was rewarded with great success, and soon he was invited by Parasport P.E.I., and Hockey P.E.I., to help set up a program with a legacy fund for sledge hockey on the Island.

“The team needed a name. I am originally from the Borden-Carleton area, and my parents had worked on the Marine Atlantic boats, the ice breakers.”

And so P.E.I.’s first sledge hockey team, the Ice Breakers, was born.

The team first hit the ice in 2009 with three players, but now it has grown to roughly 20 players. And they currently have a wide range of ability, talent, and experience.

Some do not even have a disability, he said.  

“Newer and accessible arenas are important to ensure everyone has access to play,” he said.

Payne said he wants the team to be as inclusive as possible, with a priority going to those with a disability.

“I also see this as a sport which can challenge anyone who wants to play it.”

Since the crash, he has found himself more open to trying new things. He works as a comedian and public speaker, a perfect fit for a man who has always seen himself as good with people and in crowds.

In March of 2011, he was picked to do a five-minute set at Yuk Yuks in Halifax. 

“I was also asked to be a keynote speaker at the CAF base I was released from for having a disability to talk to them on International Day for Persons with Disabilities about having a disability.

“I love irony.”

Cathleen MacKinnon, interim executive director at Parasport and Recreation P.E.I., tells a similar story.

One of her most memorable career experiences happened shortly after she started working for Parasport and Recreation P.E.I., she said.

She met a teenage boy who loved hockey, but couldn’t play because he had spina bifida. His brothers were able-bodied and played hockey, but he never had a chance.

Then he attended one of Parasport P.E.I.’s Have-A-Go events, involving a few members of Team Canada, including Billy Bridges, she said.

“I have never seen someone so excited to try a sport out. When he got in that sled, he never got out for the whole two hours.”

Ben Marston, Parasport co-ordinator at Sport Nova Scotia, said he has been involved in parasports ever since he developed a spinal cord injury back in 1997.

“After I returned home, I just found it really hard to find anything to get involved with. That’s when myself, and two others, started the wheelchair basketball program. It was all volunteers, but it was a wheelchair sport federation here in Nova Scotia.”

Marston said the parasports community has been growing throughout the Maritimes, and teams throughout the region frequently collaborate. Including able-bodied athletes helps with numbers in the team sports, but also gives them an opportunity to learn about each other, he said.

“It’s grown leaps and bounds – and that’s in all the provinces. It’s been great. I can only hope it grows a lot more.”

Organizations: Canadian Armed Forces, Canadian Forces Station Alert, National Sledge Hockey Team World Sledge Hockey Challenge Marine Atlantic Team Canada Sport Nova Scotia

Geographic location: Canada, Ellesmere Island, Borden-Carleton Nova Scotia

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