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Growing the Game: Winnipeg Jets Challenge Cup adds sledge hockey to schedule with showcase game

With 200 teams from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Nunavut and beyond in 20 divisions ranging from House League to A3 at ages U7 to U15, this year’s Winnipeg Jets Challenge Cup will be bigger and better than ever.

Numbers like that not only make a fun challenge for the schedule makers of the annual tournament being hosted over the holiday season from Dec. 22 to Jan. 4 at hockey for all centre (previously known as Bell MTS Iceplex) for the first time in several years is, but it means there’s programming for a wide variety of hockey players.

“It’s a hockey atmosphere unlike any other,” said Dean Court, Business/Amateur Hockey Development & Manager of Team Programs for Jets Hockey Development and hockey for all centre. “We host a lot of great tournaments at our facility each year, but the Challenge Cup is unique. The tournament is all in one place – it’s solely hosted at hockey for all centre unlike some of our other tournaments. We’ve got four rinks with non-stop action from the early morning until nighttime, there’s a pancake breakfast for families and lots of prizes for kids. There’s so much excitement at this tournament each year with so many people around and with kids pumped to be out of school. We’re not sure who’s more thrilled to have this tournament back – the players and families or us.”

The popularity of the tournament is obvious with the event running at capacity. And while the tournament already involves so many young hockey players, that hasn’t stopped organizers from exploring ways that they can continue to grow the tournament further and involve even more athletes.

They’ve been looking specifically at involving sledge hockey, which they’ll do for the first time this year with a showcase sledge game. It was Kyle Calder, Committee Member for Coaching + Development at Sledge Hockey Manitoba, that first brought the idea up with Court and others at hockey for all centre.

“They had started posting about the Challenge Cup to get the word out about the tournament, and I was looking through the divisions that were being included,” said Calder, who himself is fairly new to the sport of sledge hockey, having been involved for the past two years. “I asked them where the sledge hockey division was, which led to a conversation with the organizers where they mentioned that they had been looking into including a sledge hockey division.”

From there, discussions led them to starting with a showcase sledge game during the tournament this year to get their feet wet. The sledge hockey game will take place on New Year’s Eve from 10 a.m. to noon on the Scotia Arena, and Court is excited to see how the game plays out with so many hockey fans on hand who may not have witnessed sledge hockey before.

“Our goal is to give everybody who wants to play hockey the opportunity to do so,” noted Court. “That’s a major principle of our facility year-round, but also with this Challenge Cup tournament. The tournament already runs on a packed schedule, but when Sledge Hockey Manitoba approached us, we knew this would be a great opportunity to keep growing this tournament and continue showing our community that hockey really is for all.”

For Calder and Sledge Hockey Manitoba, this is only the first step in what they hope is a much longer journey. Though many Canadian provinces have their own sledge tournaments and Manitoba’s sledge hockey players have opportunities to play through those events as well as league play at home and national tournaments at the higher levels, involving sledge hockey in the Challenge Cup would incorporate the sport into a hockey tournament like few other events.

“The possibilities for the future are what excite me,” explained Calder. “The plan, in theory, is that this showcase game could lead to having a sledge hockey division at future Challenge Cups where we would have more than two teams – potentially four to six – and expand to including other provinces as well. We’re always looking for more opportunities and more awareness, so this is a good chance for our group to get our foot in the door for potentially growing this into a much larger tournament for us in the future.”

It’s an opportunity that Calder knows many sledge hockey players are excited about, and he’s even more excited to help provide it for them.

“There are so many incredible people in the sledge community that deserve to have their stories told, they deserve to have eyes on them. I’ve been blown away by the amount of effort, the work ethic, the positive spirit and happiness around the community. It’s been really uplifting and a really rewarding experience.”

Court and those at hockey for all centre already know it will be an experience they won’t soon forget.

“We work hard to make the Challenge Cup the best experience for players,” he said. “There are Player of the game prizes and trophies to be won, with player welcome packages off the ice too, and the tournament is hosted in a world-class facility where some of the best players in the world regularly train. It gives these young athletes the feeling of being like a pro and leaves them dreaming of where their hockey careers could go. The more kids we can give that feeling to, the better.”

This article was originally published in Game On – Manitoba’s hockey community magazine.