At Paralympics, sled hockey is not necessarily a young man’s game

Back in Sweden, Ulf Nilsson has worked as a butcher, a carpenter and an auto mechanic, but at age 42, he learned a new trade. He went to an ice rink, folded himself into a sled affixed to a blade and learned to play hockey. That was 11 years ago.

Now 53, Nilsson hones the reflexes he needs to stop 80-mph pucks by playing sports video games. This is his third consecutive Paralympics tending goal for Sweden, and his family and friends do not want him to stop there.

“He’s like, ‘I’m a little bit not sure about it’ because he’s that old,” said Nilsson’s son Hampus, the team’s equipment manager and de facto scout. “I tell him that the goalie from Japan’s 61. That’s like eight years older, so he better play more.”

Yes, Ulf Nilsson is not even the oldest goalie at the Paralympics. That distinction belongs to Shinobu Fukushima, whose dark crew cut and agility in the crease cloak his age.

Nor is Nilsson even the oldest player on Sweden’s para ice hockey team. His teammates Goran Karlsson and Kenth Jonsson are 54, and together the trio serves as a council of sorts for the new coach, Erik Vikstroem, who handles the team’s on-ice affairs but depends on the elders for advice on logistics like pregame skates and meal times.

“Why should I burn my fingers?” said Vikstroem, who is only 37. “They’ve been to these tournaments for almost 30 years.”

In all, five para ice hockey players here are older than 50; Miloslav Hrbek, 53, of the Czech Republic is the other besides the Swedish and Japanese players. Despite its rugged nature, sled hockey, as the sport is also known, lends itself to lengthy careers. The sport’s behemoths, Canada and the United States, skew far younger, with the two lowest average ages in the tournament — 27.5 in Canada and 27.3 in the United States.

Their players, Hrbek lamented, are not only faster and technically sound but also intelligent.

“Overall, that’s what keeps the older players in the game: how we play with our heads,” Hrbek said through an interpreter.

Compared with the United States and Canada, the rest of the field does not have the infrastructure to identify and churn out the next generation of players. So nations like Sweden and Japan tolerate their circumstances while conceiving plans to upend them.

Fukushima, appearing in his fourth Paralympics, is the oldest player on the oldest of the eight teams in the event. With an average age of 41.9 years old — five years older than the next-oldest team, Sweden — Japan’s roster reflects the demographics of the country.

In a rapidly aging society, the Japanese are struggling to imbue the team with youth. Only one member of their 17-player roster is younger than 30, and 14 are 36 or older.

“Not my intention, of course,” said coach Kojin Nakakita, who, standing in a corridor beneath the Gangneung Hockey Center, pointed to his American counterpart, Guy Gosselin. “I wish I had a team like him. But that’s the Japanese situation. With 2020, everybody’s going for the summer events, not so much for the winter. We have an ice age now for the para winter sports.”

At the conclusion of the Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo in 2020, Nakakita said he would like to start diversifying the program beyond the estimated 30 sled players in all of Japan. He wants to create an environment similar to that of Canada and the United States, which select the best players instead of keeping some by default. Nakakita is aiming for progress to be made in time for the next winter Paralympics, four years from now in Beijing.

Vikstroem endures the same problems — a meager pipeline, recruiting struggles — but in a nation where hockey is more popular and where the able-bodied, he said, are permitted to play in sleds.

He said privacy laws prevented him from accessing information that could help attract potential players. About 40 people, he said, play sled hockey in Sweden, which won medals in the first three Paralympics featuring sled hockey but none since 2002.

“If the Capitals want to sign 10 new guys, they do it in one hour,” Vikstroem said of the NHL team from Washington. “If we want to sign 10 new guys, it could take 10 years.”

He manages with what he has, a blend of 30-and-under players who represent the future and veterans like Karlsson, who has been playing so long that he won gold for Sweden at the Lillehammer Paralympics in 1994.

“Yeah, I know — I’m old,” Karlsson said.

He appeared in the next three Paralympics, then missed the last two because work prevented him from training enough. But he was asked to rejoin the Swedish team last year for its qualification pursuit. The sport is far faster, he said, than it used to be, and teams are more competitive, forcing him to compensate for his diminished skill with his understanding of the game.

“The best would be to combine the speed I had when I was young and the knowledge I have now,” Karlsson said. “That’s the problem with everything.”

This is probably Fukushima’s final Paralympics, Nakakita said. But Hrbek relishes playing a physical, full-contact style that bruises his body and tests his capacity for punishment. It is what he knows, what he likes, and at 53, he is not about to change.

“After every season, I tell myself that I’m done,” Hrbek said. “To the point where I want to quit. But then I rest up and I get back to my workout routines, I start swimming. By the time the ice is back on, I just want to play again.”

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