RED DEER – Para Ice Hockey in Canada got its start in Medicine Hat.
With that history, it is only natural that Medicine Hat native Tara Chisholm - who is the head coach of Canada’s Women’s National Para Ice Hockey Team - found her way to the sport.
“The original sled was brought over from Sweden. They asked a whole bunch of larger disability organizations … if they wanted to start sledge hockey,” said Chisholm, “Then a women called Jean Lane in Medicine Hat said, ‘I’ll start it if no one else wants to.’ So she worked with a local playground manufacturer and they built the first ever sleds in Canada.”
Chisholm’s passion for hockey began like most in Alberta – coming up through the minor ranks. When she moved on to university in Edmonton, she turned to coaching. Mentoring under Howie Draper, head coach for the University of Alberta Pandas, she couldn’t get enough of the game so she reached out to a number of organizations, including a Para program. The Para program was looking for on-ice support so Chisholm began volunteering after school and Panda practices.
That was in 2008.
“At the time I got into Para ice hockey, there was also a young guy named Matt Cook who was playing junior A hockey and had osteosarcoma. He ended up losing his leg to cancer. So him and I were both trying to figure out Para hockey at the same time,” said Chisholm. “To have somebody else to stumble through it with was really nice because we knew what we were supposed to do on the ice but to be able to actually skate and get there was a different story. You have a whole new set of skills you have to learn but the game itself is the same.”
When she returned to Medicine Hat in 2013, Chisholm revived the program that Lane had begun years prior. She worked with groups from Edmonton to help write grants, get sleds in the community and book ice times to grow the program to what is now one of the largest Para programs in the province.
In 2014, Chisholm added to her volunteer resume by starting her tenure in the role she still holds as head coach of national women’s Para team.
What began as a grassroots community program is now a high-performance program with elite standards that continues strive to get the female game into the Paralympics, similar to the men’s side.
“I’ve been really fortunate to work with a lot of people who just truly love the game of hockey and want women with disabilities to be able to showcase their skills in the game of hockey and are passionate about that. When you’re around passionate people the hard work doesn’t seem quite as hard or at least you’re lifted with other people,” said Chisholm.
The first Women’s World Para Hockey Challenge took place in Green Bay, Wisconsin in August. It featured teams from Great Britain, Canada, the United States and “the World”. Team Canada earned the silver medal, losing to the USA in the final.
But Chisholm considers the event a win for the Canadian players because of the hurdles they had to go through just to get on the ice.
Players and staff paid their own way to the Challenge, supplementing some money from fundraisers with their own cash. The team wears Hockey Canada jerseys, but is not associated with the organization, nor is it funded by Sport Canada. The staff is composed of passionate volunteers, while the players pay to play. Personal holidays/ time off are used so staff and players can participate in the team’s events.
“Our immediate goal is to become funded, similar to our USA Hockey counterparts,” said Chisholm. “Right now, USA Hockey has decided to fund the women’s national program, even though they are not in a World Championship or Paralympic Games. They decided that it’s a priority for them to give equitable access to their women the same that they do as their men’s team. So that’s what we’ll be looking for in the short term.”
For the World Challenge, Chisholm worked to keep costs as low as possible for the players. Tryouts were hosted in April, but some players were unable to attend. So Chisholm and her assistant coach Derek Whitson (who is also her husband and a former Para ice hockey player) travelled across the country to host regional camps. With players spread coast to coast and one in England, Chisholm created an online course on terminology and systems, and scheduled team workouts over Zoom a few times a week. With the leadership of veteran players, many felt it was the closest team they had ever been on – even though most didn’t meet in person until day one of the Challenge.
As performances on the international stage become more consistent, Chisholm’s long-term goal for Women’s Para Ice Hockey is to see it in the Paralympics and a World Championship.
“Our amazing group of volunteers hope that if we can take some of the pressure of raising money for Canada off our plate, we’re able to help other countries more. Which is what we need internationally for this sport,” said Chisholm. “My husband and I have been very fortunate to travel to a few different countries to help jumpstart their programs. The less work I have to do here in Canada with other Canadians supporting our women, then the more work I can do internationally.”
In addition to her work locally, nationally and internationally, Chisholm also sits on Hockey Alberta’s Para Hockey Committee, which meets monthly to discuss the growth of the program in the province.
“We’ve seen more growth and are starting to become a leader in the sport. (W)hen I first started it was Ontario and Quebec that were leading the way,” said Chisholm. “Now people are looking to Alberta for ideas for how to get the sport growing in their own province or even in their own country. We get asks from all over the world about what we’re doing here.”
Hockey Alberta is hosting a Para Kick-Off Weekend September 10-11 in Red Deer at the Gary W. Harris Canada Games Centre. On Saturday, para players, or those interested in trying para, are welcome to participate in a one-day camp. Then, on Sunday, Chisholm will be hosting a para coaching clinic. Those interested can still register online.
For more information on Para ice hockey in Alberta, check out the Hockey Alberta website for a list of clubs throughout the province.