James Gemmell has done it again and this time he hopes to stick around for the full experience.
Gemmell, 31, was selected to the Canadian sledge hockey team last September and is now preparing for a busy season, beginning with training camp in Whitehorse, NWT this month, followed by a World Sledge Hockey Challenge in Calgary, Alta., a tournament in Japan in January, another in Buffalo, New York in February and the sledge hockey World Championships in Norway in March.
“Getting a chance to play in the world championships is a huge step,” Gemmell said.
“It’s not quite the same level as the Olympics, but who wouldn’t want to be called a world champion.”
Making the national team has been no small feat for Gemmell.
Gemmell took up sledge hockey six years ago, following a car accident, Aug. 21, 2004 that saw him lose much of his right leg.
At the time, Gemmell didn’t even know the sport of sledge hockey existed.
It wasn’t until a few years later, during the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, when Gemmell saw his first sledge hockey game on TSN.
“I can do that,” Gemmell said of his first thought as he watched the game.
Six months later, with the notion of playing for the national team the furthest thing from his mind, Gemmell slipped into a sled he described as, “An old bomber with old skate blades screwed to the bottom.”
It wasn’t the best experience, but enough to get Gemmell to go back once more.
The second time he was given a better sled and had a better experience.
“I’ve been playing ever since,” he said with a big grin.
“I have to thank SportAbility in Surrey for that.”
Unlike most of the players on the national team, Gemmell does not have year-round access to ice, nor does he have other elite sledge-hockey players he can train with.
Instead, Gemmell works out at the gym as often as he can.
In preparation for this year’s tryout camp, Gemmell spent as much time as he could in the gym and kayaking, trying to improve his upper body strength.
“Upper body and core strength are the keys to playing sledge hockey and being good at it,” he said.
Despite training as best he could, Gemmell admits, going into the national team tryout camp, he wasn’t feeling confident about his chances.
In the end, he thinks that may have helped him put in a good showing at the camp.
“I went with no pressure, just to have fun,” he explained.
“That helped me in game situations because I didn’t panic the way I normally do.”
At the camp, it didn’t take Gemmell long to realize the summer of training and working paid off and national team staff noticed he had become stronger over the course of the summer.
On the flip side, the extra muscle, as he realized at the camp, had taken away some of his speed.
To help improve his speed, Gemmell hits the ice at Twin Arenas three times a week and in addition to playing a bit of me-against-them hockey, also spends time doing resistance training, which means he pulls one of the volunteer sledge hockey players around the ice.
“I’m trying to do everything I can to be a world champion,” he said.
“I know it’s not going to be easy.”
In all, eight players tried out for a spot on the blueline and Gemmell was one of only five defenceman to be selected.
By the end of the tryout camp Gemmell said he was feeling more confident about his efforts, but admitted his biggest challenge is to not panic in game situations when he goes to fetch a loose puck in the corner.
“I panicked if I knew I had a world-class player was coming in to try and put me through the boards,” he said.
But his experience with the national team and national development team last year have been helpful in keeping him relatively calm when he digs the puck out of the corner.
What also helps, Gemmell explained, is knowing where his teammates are on the ice, which gives him several options in terms of where to move the puck.
Although he has been there before, he is not taking anything for granted and wants to stick with the team, not only for this season, but for many seasons.
Part of that motivation comes from being cut from the team in mid-season in 2008 and then not making the initial cut in 2009.
Now Gemmell has his sights set on a world championship and more.
“This is my chance to push and push, to work as hard as I can this year to secure a spot for the next few years,” he said.
“I want to get a chance to win an Olympic gold medal before I’m too old to play.”
Now that he is more or less comfortable with the speed and physical aspect of the game, Gemmell said he also faces a different kind of pressure, a pressure that puts a smile on his face and gets his heart racing.
“There’s no feeling like having Hockey Canada put your name on the back of a jersey,” he said.
“It definitely brings out the nerves.
“But once I find my groove in the game, my nerves will go away.”