Kelvin Mickelson of Queensland, Australia still remembers his first few moments on Sinkut Lake near Vanderhoof in an ice hockey sledge.
It was the start of 2016—the sky was grey, the temperature had a cold bite to it and the lake had a rough surface after being cleared of snow.
“The feeling I had of fresh, unusual, fast and safe was overwhelming,” said the founder and president of Para Ice Hockey Qld.
“I could see para ice [sledge] hockey would give so many benefits to participants and that it was an inclusive activity.”
In late 2014, Kelvin and his Australian-born wife, Melissa, were planning a trip to visit his oldest sister Gilda and her family in Vanderhoof for Christmas.
Gilda was born in Mission, B.C. but at a young age moved to Cabri, Saskatchewan, where Kelvin said he grew up on their family farm and at their house in Swift Current. She would move to Vanderhoof after getting a teaching job in math and music, eventually marry Gerd Erasmus, a teacher, and live in a house on the banks of Sinkut Lake.
Although Kelvin and his wife’s initial plans changed dramatically as a result of an unexpected and aggressive cancer taking Gilda’s life on April 12, 2015, Kelvin said they kept their plans and returned to Vanderhoof for Christmas that same year.
“Prior to this visit I had started liaising with Jade Werger from SportAbility in Vancouver and Allie Moore from BC Hockey on Vancouver Island,” he said.
“Jade and Allie arranged for a complimentary para ice hockey sled for me to use when I arrived in Canada.”
The sled was picked up from SportAbility in Vancouver, where Kelvin and Melissa started their 10-hour drive north to Vanderhoof.
To celebrate the start of 2016 and the uniqueness of winter activities, they were invited by the Striegler family for a day of fun on the frozen ice of Sinkut Lake.
Lisa Striegler was a student when she met Gilda, who came to teach at the high school in Vanderhoof. She had already known Gerd Erasmus as he taught her older siblings. The two women became friends when Lisa moved back to Vanderhoof in 1995 and got involved in community theatre. Their friendship became even closer when Lisa moved to Sinkut Lake in 2004, and Gilda taught her kids piano.
“The Striegler family had cleared a path on the lake, and Melissa gave ice skates a run and the sledge a go,” Kelvin said.
It was those first few moments on Sinkut Lake that Kelvin said he knew he had to bring the sport to Queensland after coming to the realization he could participate in para ice hockey with his able-bodied wife and daughters, and that there was an endless volume of new skills he could learn from the exciting team sport in which ‘everyone is welcome.’
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Kelvin is a Thalidomide survivor and was born without his legs, spending many years in rehabilitation.
“Having my roots stemming from Saskatchewan, hockey was always the game,” he said.
“I watched many friends play, and I supported my favourite teams and backed Canada like many of my friends; however, having artificial legs I was always a spectator. Para ice hockey takes away the barriers and puts people like me on to the ice and into the game.”
After spending Christmas and New Year in Vanderhoof, Kelvin and Melissa left for Saskatchewan and Vernon, B.C., to visit more friends and family before departing Canada and returning to Australia at the end of January.
Kelvin first came to Australia in 1983 as a tourist and said he cannot put his finger on what sparked his fondness of the country. Six years later, in 1989, he applied for Permanent Residency, knowing if things didn’t pan out, he could always return to Canada.
In 2017 Kelvin started Para Ice Hockey Qld.
While South Australia tried for years before without success to get the sport going, para ice hockey returned to Australian shores again on November 6, 2017, in Boondall, Queensland at the Iceworld Olympic Ice Rink.
“Was it difficult? Very much so,” Kelvin said, adding there are very few ice rinks in Australia.
“Of course, as it was such a new sport, it meant everyone had to be educated about it.”
In the beginning, Kelvin said he received valuable support from BC Hockey and sledge clubs across North America and Europe including the International Paralympic Committee’s World Para Ice Hockey division as well as a small band of volunteers who all “laughed, cried, sweated and stood together.”
“There is now rapid change and awareness occurring; however, we are only just beginning our journey in to guide this into being a mainstream sport,” he said.
“Today, we are supported by the Australia and Queensland grant programs and Iceworld Olympic ice rinks.”
When COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, Kelvin would like to see the sport grow in popularity across the globe with competitions between Australia, Canada and the United States.
In 2020, Kelvin said they were able to host weekly sessions in Brisbane for most of the year, and in 2021 have been on the ice weekly since the start of January.
Ice Hockey Australia recently announced it would be the governing body for the sport, which Kelvin said is significant news as it was the last major milestone he had set out to achieve.
“I am unable to fully explain the feelings of when you put your soul into a project and you look back and you can honestly say out loud ‘That was awesome’,” he said, adding he would welcome the opportunity to return to Sinkut Lake near Vanderhoof where many of Gilda’s family and friends, and the Striegler family still reside.