What the Relief Fund means to me, by Anouchka Hawkes-O’Hara

Dr. Peggy Assinck, Canadian veteran of para hockey, wants to promote the development of the sport she loves on an international scale and allow women to learn about it

When she was young, the DD Peggy Assinck was very athletic. She didn’t know she was born with spina bifida — a birth defect of the spine. She was in no way bothered by it and she practiced several sports.

So it’s not hard to imagine that when complications led to paralysis in her lower body at the age of 11, she felt like she had lost part of her identity.

“It was very difficult, because I really identified myself as an athlete,” says Assinck, now 38. “My parents really wanted to find a way to keep me active in sports, even though I was dealing with constant medical issues and lower body paralysis. »

Following recommendations made to her during a recreational therapy consultation, she tried one of the only adapted sports practiced near Peterborough, Ontario at the time: para hockey. Assinck and his family made the 1.5 hour trip to discover this sport. Even if she didn’t have a crush on her first moments on the ice, she was really happy to meet young people like her.

“I grew up in a remote community, so I never met anyone in a wheelchair or someone using adaptive equipment,” she says. “It was pretty cool to meet like-minded people. »

Over time, his passion for para hockey grew. Now a veteran of Canada’s National Women’s Para Hockey Team, Assinck wants girls and women everywhere to have the chance to try out the sport she has dedicated her life to.

Provide positive experiences for women

Among the aspects on which she emphasizes, Assinck wants to provide positive experiences to those who are new to para hockey. As part of the women’s team selection camp in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, from April 25-30, a grant from the Hockey Canada Foundation is helping to hold try-outs of the sport for the community .

“I want to make sure that more kids and people who have just suffered an injury can have a great first experience in para hockey,” explains Assinck. “I think the Hockey Canada Foundation grant really helps the women’s para hockey team practice in remote communities and provides support for women’s programs. »

At the foundation, we believe that girls thrive when they play hockey, and that hockey evolves when girls play it,” says Alexandra Wise of the Hockey Canada Foundation. “This collaboration with Women’s Para Hockey Canada is a natural fit with the mission of our organizations and allows us to pursue the development of this sport at the local level, but also at higher levels. »

It’s no coincidence that wherever Assinck went, women’s Para hockey grew with her guidance and support. Wanting to learn more about spina bifida, she enrolled at Brock University to study neuroscience. During her undergraduate studies, she played for the Niagara Thunderbirds and volunteered with the Brock Niagara Penguins program, which serves children 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. Wanting to continue her training as an elite Para hockey player, she started looking for a club in her province.

“Growing up in southern Ontario, where para hockey was widely played, I was quite surprised to see how this sport was so erased from the sports landscape of British Columbia,” she says.

After joining a Surrey team run by SportAbility, Assinck helped create new para hockey programs in Vancouver and Victoria, and helped create opportunities to try the sport across the province. Then, she helped form a provincial team with the support of Hockey B.C.

A trip overseas

In 2017, thanks to a postdoctoral fellowship, Assinck crossed the Atlantic to attend the University of Edinburgh and the University of Cambridge. There were a few club programs in Britain, and the Canadian was quick to join the team closest to her home, Manchester’s Mayem, to continue her training.

“I played for this club for a while, but it became pretty clear that I had acquired expertise in para hockey, and after a year I was asked to become an assistant coach for the men’s para hockey team. of Great Britain,” she said.

In 2019, Assinck traveled to the IPC World Para Hockey Championship with Team Great Britain, who played in Group B in Germany.

“I think I was the only athlete who was also behind a bench and the only woman to hold a coaching position,” she says. “It was a truly incredible opportunity to find myself in such a position and contribute to the men’s program to help them with their activities and their objectives. »

With her coaching experience, a new opportunity arose in 2021 when the International Paralympic Committee approached the coaches of the Great Britain men’s para hockey team to ask them to create a women’s team.

I suddenly had the chance to launch a team in another country… it seemed completely natural for me to be part of this adventure. »

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

Although Assinck was a leader abroad, she continued to receive support from Team Canada staff at home. One of the difficulties she experienced was the lack of ice time, which meant that she often taught athletes how to play para hockey without being on the ice.

“She spends time in the classroom teaching the basics of the game,” said Tara Chisholm, head coach of Canada’s National Women’s Para Hockey Team. “She rents out gymnasiums so that athletes can play and learn the game systems. She does absolutely everything to show her athletes how to become para hockey players in a place that is not conducive to the development of this sport. »

Despite the scarcity of resources and the challenges that have come with the creation of a new team during the COVID-19 pandemic, Britain’s new women’s national para hockey team is ready to take part in its first international event, the IPC Women’s World Challenge.

“Honestly, I don’t know how she manages to do everything she does,” Chisholm expresses. “I am very grateful for all the work she has done behind the scenes, which has essentially helped make women’s para hockey the sport we know today. »

Ensuring the growth of para hockey in Canada and everywhere else

In forming the team, Assinck prepared a document outlining the steps for launching a program with the aim of sharing it with other countries so that they could follow the same processes.

“That’s the main goal now, not only to help para hockey grow in Canada, but also to ensure that other girls and women with disabilities around the world can have the chance to practice this sport,” says Chisholm.

“If we want to be at the Paralympic Games one day, we have to get other countries to create teams,” she adds. “We want to make sure the girls have a great first experience and forge a viable program that will continue for many years. »

I firmly believe that if I hadn’t gravitated towards para hockey when I was young, when I was struggling with difficulties in my life, I would not be the person I am today. , she says.

While it’s a little strange to face the team you started in competition, Assinck had the full support of her British colleagues to return to Canada and prepare for the Women’s World Challenge. Despite all she has done for the development of her sport, she is still focused on being the best athlete she can be and training hard to earn the privilege of wearing the maple leaf uniform.

She hopes people will see her as someone who has dedicated her life and resources to being an elite athlete and who has made absolutely every effort to support women and para hockey on Canadian soil and in all places around the world. In her eyes, it’s the least she can do for a sport that has changed her life.

“I firmly believe that if I hadn’t gravitated towards the realms of para hockey when I was young, when I was struggling with difficulties in my life, I would not be the person I am today. “, she confides. “I wouldn’t have the confidence to speak in front of thousands of people about neuroscience or to coach from team to team.

“I hope I can feel like I’ve done everything I can to make sure people with disabilities, especially women, can experience the sport that means so much to me and could mean so much to them. . »

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