Everything about a local group’s recent trip to Korea was Special.
Shawn Altenberg, Trevor Fendelet and Kyle Couture were all apart of Team Canada West that travelled to Pyeong Chang, Korea, for the World Special Olympics Winter Games and after a gruelling schedule, they returned home with a gold medal.
“The competition is the best in the world and the boys really brought their game up when they had to,” said Darren Whitehead, one of the coaches for the Saskatchewan-based Canadian floor hockey team.
The western Canadian squad was largely composed of players from Saskatoon, but when that club won the national championship last year they were allowed to recruit some extra bodies and that gave the three local players an opportunity to make plans to go to Korea.
The team, which practised regularly together in Saskatoon in addition to some extra time on there own, attended a training camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., prior to Christmas and the extra work paid off.
But, it didn’t look that way at the start of the competition in Korea.
After playing eight games in a qualifying section of the championship (Canada West was 6-1-1) they were placed in Division 3 of the traditional Special Olympics against teams from Singapore, Mexico and Monaco.
The Traditional Division is where all participants are Special Olympians while the Unified Division allowed up to 50 percent of the members to be able-bodied. There were eight divisions in the Traditional event with teams grouped according to ability.
In the round-robin portion of the tournament, Canada West lost 6-4 to Singapore and 3-1 to Mexico before beating Monaco 3-2. That left them in fourth place in the pool so in the semifinals they had to once again face Singapore, a team that had not lost any matches in the preliminary round-robin.
That is where Canada West turned things around as they crushed Singapore 6-1 and then doubled Mexico 4-2 in the gold-medal game.
“It’s the first one Saskatchewan has ever won and I believe it is the first one ever for Canada,” said Whitehead. “I’ve been involved in Special Olympics for 30 years and it never happened in that time.”
“It was awesome,” added Fendelet. “We played hard; it was the funnest thing ever.”
The other Canadian team, a group from Ontario, was in Division 4 where they went undefeated in the qualifying section and didn’t lose a game in the round-robin, but when it came to the gold-medal game, they were upset by Bangladesh and had to settle for a silver medal.
Bangladesh not only beat Canada for top prize, but they also benefitted from some good old Canadian generosity as Canada West, after noticing Bangladesh did not have enough helmets for all of the players, gave them their helmets at the end of the tournament.
Canada also brought a set of sticks to give to Egypt and when they were done competing in the tournament, sold that country their other set of sticks.
“It was more a goodwill gesture for Canada,” said Whitehead. “Egypt had contacted the Canadian Special Olympics office and asked if we could bring some sticks and then when we were done with ours we sold them those too (the first set was a gift).”
While the statistics weren’t readily available, Whitehead says all three local players were huge offensive threats for the team with each scoring a number of goals. Whitehead also said that Korea as a whole wasn’t anything like what he expected.
“Korea is very, very modern,” said Whitehead. “A lot more than I expected; it’s a little more expensive than I thought too.”
Now it is back to practising in the hopes that someday they can get back to a world event. But, this experience, and the success, will be hard to beat.