Manchester Phoenix sledge hockey trio in GB squad for New Year Cup trip to Russia
Manchester Phoenix sledge hockey captain Karl Nicholson and rookies Steven Midghall and Rob Allen will be flying the flag for Great Britain when the national team travel to Russia for the New Year Cup tournament next month.
The three-day competition, which will also feature Sweden, the Czech Republic, Estonia and the host nation, is seen an important milestone on the road to the 2014 Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi.
Nicholson (pictured in red and white jersey) is one of Team GB's stars and has represented his country at the 1998 and 2006 Winter Paralympics.
By contrast, Midghall is a relative newcomer to sledge hockey and only started playing less than six months ago.
Allen is also fairly new to the sport – although he will be familiar to many Phoenix fans as the club's dancing penalty box attendant on match nights.
Team GB head coach Andy Linton believes that while the players' backgrounds in the sport are all very different, they can all make an important contribution to the team's campaign in Russia and, longer term, the bid to qualify for the 2014 Games.
"Karl is considered a world-class sledge hockey player and is one of our most experienced players," he said.
"Karl holds a key role on the GB sledge Paralympic team as he is a good, strong skating forward with speed and agility. He has a willingness to compete at all times, can handle the puck at top speed, in tight corners and has ability to adjust body position to protect puck including along the boards. He has a good team ethos and can bring other players into the game."
While Nicholson's attacking flair and leadership will make him a danger at one end of the ice, Linton believes Midghall has all the qualities to be a top performer at the other end.
"Steve has only been playing a few months and has picked up the sport really quickly. He caught my eye at Coventry during a GB try-out session, which he was invited to," he said.
"He is a very good netminder, capable of playing to a high standard. He has been putting in a consistent effort during training and has a positive attitude towards all aspects of the sport and is improving his skills quickly. Steve just needs to get more game experience and, working with our coaching staff, he is likely to develop to be a key player on the Paralympic team."
Linton also feels that the trip to Russia could be an important step in Allen's development as a fearsome competitor on the ice. He was a late addition to the roster after waiting on classification to see if he is eligible for the GB squad and is being taken along for some valuable tournament experience.
"Rob has been playing for about four months and has shown significant progress in that time," Linton said.
"Also a very keen hockey fan, given the right support and encouragement Rob has the potential to become a very good hockey player. He shows great progress every time he gets on to the ice and is a player who can embrace the physical aspect of the game."
The other Manchester Phoenix player in the GB pool, Anthony Booth, is unfortunately unable to attend the New Year Cup because of work commitments but the veteran could well have a role to play as the team look to build on their efforts in Russia.
The GB squad for the New Year Cup also includes Carol Bonner, captain of the European women's sledge hockey team, and lance corporal Tyler Christopher, a serving member of the British Army who plays for Battle Back Bison, a team made up of Armed Forces personnel.
Great Britain's first New Year Cup game is against Estonia on 8 December at the Vityaz Arena in Podolsk. The team will then take on the Czech Republic and the hosts the following day before they face Sweden – the birthplace of the sport – on 10 December.
Sledge hockey was invented in the 1960s to allow people with physical disabilities to play ice hockey.
Players are strapped into a sledge fitted with a skate blade and use two sticks to propel themselves across the ice at high speed in a style similar to skiing. The sticks are also used to control, pass and shoot the puck.
Manchester Phoenix fans will get a taste of sledge hockey action on Saturday when some of the GB players will put on a special demonstration during an interval in the EPL match against Peterborough Phantoms. Tickets for the game are available via the club's website.
The Manchester Phoenix sledge hockey team is open to both disabled and able-bodied players. If you would like to give it a try, contact coach Pete Hagan on 0161 301 6848 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Great Britain squad: Rob Allen (Manchester Phoenix), Carol Bonner (Coventry Honey Badgers), Darren Brown (Peterborough Phantoms), Tyler Christopher (Battle Back Bison), Matt Clarkson (Kingston Kestrels), Matthew Coleman (Peterborough Phantoms), Lee Coupe (Battle Back Bison), Gary Farmer (Peterborough Phantoms), Rob Gaze (Peterborough Phantoms), Bryan Hackworth (Kingston Kestrels), Steve Midghall (Manchester Phoenix), Karl Nicholson (Manchester Phoenix), Ian Warner (Kingston Kestrels), Matt Woolias (Kingston Kestrels).
Head coach: Andy Linton
Team manager: Red Geddes
New Year Cup schedule:
Day 1 – 8 December
12pm – Sweden v Czech Republic
3pm – Estonia v Great Britain
6pm – Opening ceremony
6.30pm – Sweden v Russia
Day 2 – 9 December
10am – Russia v Estonia
1pm – Great Britain v Czech Republic
4pm – Sweden v Estonia
7pm – Russia v Great Britain
Day 3 – 10 December
12pm – Estonia v Czech Republic
3pm – Sweden v Great Britain
6pm – Russia v Czech Republic
8.30pm – Closing ceremony
By Andy Jowett