It made for a big bulls-eye, that maple leaf logo stitched on the front of the red and white jerseys, during the Olympic men’s and women’s hockey tournaments a couple of weeks ago in PyeongChang, and things won’t be any different come next Friday when the 2018 Paralympic Games get under way in South Korea.
That’s because when it comes to hockey, from the men and women to the Para sport athletes, Canada is always a target.
“We’re a really good team right now, and we know other teams are gearing up for us,” said Liam Hickey, “so we’re excited.”
Hickey, from St. John’s, is not only one of Canada’s top Paralympic hockey players, but, in fact, is one of the country’s top Paralympians having played for the Canadian men’s basketball team two years ago at the 2016 Paralympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Canada enters the Winter Paralympics as the No. 1 ranked hockey team, and Hickey is one of the team’s top point-producers. At 19, he’s also one of its youngest players.
He left for South Korea Wednesday, a brutal trip that began with a 5 a.m. flight from St. John’s to Toronto, followed by a 14-hour jaunt to Seoul.
No wonder Hickey was busy last weekend downloading a number of television series to his IPad.
Just as it was in Olympic women’s hockey, the Para hockey gold-medal game promises to be another heated Canada-U.S. showdown.
Canada hopes to have the last laugh after the States won the 2017 World Sledge Challenge in early December in Charlottetown, P.E.I. with a 3-2 decision over their hosts in the final.
It was the fourth straight Sledge Challenge title for the Americans.
Hickey was a bright spot for the Canadians, leading the team in scoring with five goals and five assists five games.
Canada, however, won the last IPC World Para Hockey Championship, beating the U.S. 4-1 in the gold-medal game last April in Gangneung, in the same rink where the Paralympic hockey competition will be held.
Hickey scored one of Canada’s goals, and finished the tournament with seven goals and nine assists in seven games.
“We’ve worked super hard for this and guys, including myself, have put a lot of time into training for this,” he said of the Paralympics. “The confidence is there, and to be honest, that’s something that is different for me from the Rio Games. The basketball team was at a different level than the hockey team, in that we were in a rebuilding phase.
“There’s a different level of confidence with this team, and it’s pretty special. Everyone is really looking for to these Games.”
Athletes will say when they represent Hockey Canada, there’s a certain degree of responsibility and in a lot of cases, pressure, that comes with that, regardless if its under-18 or world junior play, Olympics or Paralympics.
Make no mistake, there is but one expectation — gold.
“Yeah, for sure, I know that and all the boys know that,” Hickey said. “Being under Hockey Canada’s banner, there’s a huge amount of pressure that comes with that. You want to make Canada proud, so there is pressure to perform.
“We always picture that Canada-U.S. rivalry, and we don’t want to end up playing for a bronze medal or something.”
Because he’s been there, done that, Hickey hasn’t found himself to be the bag of nerves he was before Rio, where Canada eventually wound up 11th in wheelchair basketball.
Gone is the anticipation of what the opening and closing ceremonies will be like, the accommodations that awaited him at the Athletes Village.
“It was kind of overwhelming going into Rio unaware of so many things, so going into this one,” he said, “I’m a lot less nervous about the experience that’s coming up. Instead, I can instead focus on the games and what I need to do to be ready.
“There are some guys who have been to four or five Paralympics, and they talk about how relaxed they are. To a certain extent, I’m already feeling that after being in Rio.”
For a number of years, really, Hickey has put his life on hold for Para sports. While his friends from Mount Pearl’s O’Donel high school have moved on to university, his education has been pushed to the backburner for now in what’s essentially been a four-year commitment to training and competition.
“It’s been pretty demanding on the body and mind,” he said, “but it’s all been worth it. I wouldn’t change it for a thing. To experience the Paralympics twice is obviously something I wouldn’t give up.”
And he’s not done yet. His long-term goal is to complete in more Paralympics, although he will be taking some time off after PyeongChang to rest and start “chipping away” at school.
“I’ll wait and see how realistic it is to keep switching between ball and hockey, but I’ll try,” he said. “We’ll see where that goes.”
For now, however, the only thing on his mind is a gold medal. Canada’s first game is Saturday, March 10 vs Sweden. The gold-medal game is Sunday, March 18.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort