A sign on a telephone pole reignited Christina Lamey’s love for hockey and set her on the right path to ensuring Cape Breton girls and women have a place to play

Growing up, Dr. Peggy Assinck was very athletic. She was not yet identified as being born with spina bifida – a birth defect of the spine – so she was fully able-bodied and played a variety of sports.

That’s why when she had complications from her condition and became paralyzed from the waist down at the age of 11, she felt like she lost a bit of her identity. .

“It was really hard to be honest with you, because I think I really identified as an athlete,” said Assinck, 38. “My parents really wanted to find a way to get me involved in the sport, despite the fact that I had medical issues and paralysis below the waist.”

A recreational therapist recommended that he try one of the only adaptive sports near Peterborough, Ontario at the time: para hockey. Assinck and his family traveled 90 minutes from home to try the sport for the first time. Even if it was not necessarily love at first sight on the first skate, she was delighted to meet other young people like her.

“Because I grew up in such a remote community, I had never met anyone else in a wheelchair or anyone else using adaptive equipment,” she says. “It was pretty cool to meet other kids with disabilities.”

Over time, his passion for para hockey grew and blossomed. Now one of Canada’s National Women’s Para Hockey Team veterans, Assinck aims to ensure other women and girls around the world have the opportunity to try out the sport she has dedicated her life to. .

Ensuring positive experiences for women

One thing Assinck insists on is ensuring positive experiences for women when they try para hockey for the first time. As the women’s team holds its selection camp in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, from April 25-30, a grant from the Hockey Canada Foundation will help provide tryouts and grassroots sessions in the community.

“I want to make sure that more kids and more people who have had new injuries have a good first contact experience,” Assinck said. “I think the Hockey Canada Foundation grant really helps the women’s para hockey team do that in remote communities. [and] to help support women-specific programs.

As the Foundation, we believe that girls grow when they play hockey and hockey grows when girls play,” says Alexandra Wise of the Hockey Canada Foundation.

“Working with an organization like Women’s Para Hockey Canada allows us to align our missions and continue to grow the game from the ground up, but also to a higher level,” added Wise.

It’s no coincidence that wherever Assinck has gone in her life, women’s Para hockey has grown with her guidance and support. Inspired by a desire to learn more about spina bifida, she attended Brock University to pursue studies in neuroscience. While completing her undergraduate studies, she played with the Niagara Thunderbirds and volunteered with the Brock Niagara Penguins, an athletic program for youth and young adults with physical disabilities.

After graduating in 2008, Assinck began his master’s and completed his doctorate in neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. Seeking to continue her training as an elite para-hockey athlete, she sought out a club team to join in her new home province.

“Having grown up in southern Ontario, where para ice hockey was ubiquitous, I was quite surprised at how little para ice hockey there was in British Columbia as a whole,” she says.

Once she joined a Surrey-based team led by SportAbility, Assinck helped create new para hockey programs in Vancouver and Victoria, and helped create opportunities across the province to try out the sport. From there, she helped organize a provincial team with the support of BC Hockey.

Traveling across the pond

A postdoctoral fellowship took Assinck abroad in 2017 to the University of Edinburgh and the University of Cambridge. There were a handful of club programs in Britain when she moved, and the Canadian soon joined the team closest to her, Manchester Mayhem, to continue training.

“I’ve been involved as an athlete on this club team for a while, but I think it became pretty clear that I had a lot of expertise in Para hockey, and I was asked about a year after playing here to become an assistant coach on [Great Britain’s] men’s para ice hockey team,” she said.

Assinck traveled with Team Great Britain to the IPC Para Hockey World Championship, B Pool, in 2019 in Germany.

“I think I was probably the only athlete who was also a coach, I was probably the only woman who was also a coach,” she says. “It was a really amazing opportunity to just be on the bench and help support the men’s program in what it was doing and what it was aiming for.”

With the addition of coaching to his CV, a new opportunity presented itself in 2021: the International Paralympic Committee approached the coaches of the Great Britain men’s para hockey team to ask if they would set up a team feminine.

I suddenly found myself with the opportunity to create a team in another country… and it seemed like the right place for me,” says Assinck.

Assinck quickly got to work. She appealed to athletes with lower body disabilities living in Britain, interviewed potential players and selected 27 athletes – most of whom had never played para hockey before – for the new programme.

Although Assinck led the charge overseas, she continued to receive support from Team Canada personnel at home. One of the challenges she faced was a lack of ice time, which meant she often taught a group of athletes how to play hockey off the ice.

“She spends time in the classroom teaching them the basics of hockey,” says Tara Chisholm, head coach of Canada’s National Women’s Para Hockey Team. “She rents out gymnasiums so they can play floor hockey and get familiar with the systems that way. She’s literally pulling together everything she can to teach these athletes how to be hockey players in a space that really isn’t meant for hockey players to thrive.

Despite limited resources and the challenges of building a new team during the COVID-19 pandemic, Britain’s new women’s national team is ready to compete in its first international event, the IPC Women’s World Challenge, this autumn.

“Honestly, I don’t know how she does everything she does,” Chisholm says. “I’m very grateful for all the work she’s done that goes unnoticed and has basically helped grow women’s para hockey to where it is now.

Growing the game in Canada and beyond

When the team was created, Assinck wrote a document explaining how she started the program with the aim of sharing it with other countries so they could replicate the processes.

“That’s the big goal right now, not only to grow the game within our Canadian borders, but also to make sure that other girls and women with disabilities around the world have the opportunity to play the game. hockey,” Chisholm said.

“In order to be at the Paralympic Games, we need more countries to create teams,” adds Assinck. “We just want to make sure they have a great first experience and that we’re creating a sustainable program that can go on for many, many years.”

I sincerely believe that if I had not been involved in [para hockey] when I was young, when I was going through the difficulties I had, I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” says Assinck.

Although it’s a bit of an odd position to play against the team you’ve created in competition, Assinck has had the full support of her UK colleagues to return to Canada and prepare for the Women’s World Challenge. Despite everything she has done to develop the sport, she always prioritizes being the best athlete she can be and trains hard to earn the privilege of wearing the maple leaf on her chest.

She hopes people see her as someone who has dedicated so much of her life and finances to being an elite athlete, and someone who has gone above and beyond to support women and para hockey. in Canada and around the world. It’s the least she can do for a sport that has changed her life.

“I sincerely believe that if I hadn’t been involved in [para hockey] when I was young, when I was going through the hardships I was having, I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” she says. “I wouldn’t have the confidence to speak in front of thousands of people about neuroscience or even the confidence to jump from team to team in some of my coaching roles.

“I hope I can look back and feel like I did everything I could to make sure that people with disabilities, especially women with disabilities, are exposed to the sport that means so much to me and could mean so much to me. them.”