Written by: Matt Johnson for Sask Sport
Photo credit: Canadian Paralympic Committee
When men’s Para ice hockey gets underway on Friday night at the 2022 Paralympic Games in Beijing, there will be a Saskatoon coach holding some of the cards for Canada.
Saskatoon’s Ken Babey is the head coach of Team Canada’s Para ice hockey team and is in charge of leading the red and white to their first Paralympic gold medal since 2006.
With the ongoing pandemic, Babey describes the last year as a challenge to both run camps, as well as events. But after a month-long training camp held at WinSport in Calgary in preparation for the Games, Team Canada is in Beijing and is battle ready.
“It’s really exciting,” said Babey.
The Canadians were able to compete in the 2021 World Para Ice Hockey Championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic this summer where they won silver after a loss to the United States in the gold medal game — a defeat they also suffered in the gold medal game at the 2018 Paralympics in PyeongChang.
Team Canada will be hoping a rematch for gold is in store in Beijing where Babey and company will have the opportunity to rewrite the narrative against the rival Americans.
“What I remember in 2018, when you get to the gold medal game, there’s an intense rivalry, but there’s a tremendous amount of pressure. I felt it. I’m sure the players felt it,” said Babey. “They all talk about how much pressure they felt. It’s a different event — there is no event like it. It’s a world event and you’re playing against the best in the world.”
Heading into Beijing, Babey comprised a new look roster. While mainstays like Greg Westlake, Billy Bridges and Adam Dixon remain, seven of the 17 players will be making their Paralympic debuts.
“We’re a faster team than we’ve ever been. We’re a younger team and we’ve got some good, skilled players. We’ve got a lot to show here,” said Babey.
Babey took over the Para hockey program after the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, where Canada finished with bronze. He was the man tasked for the job by Hockey Canada to help get the program back to its winning ways.
“I wasn’t sure I even wanted to do it. I agreed to go out to the first selection camp after Sochi and I didn’t know what the heck I was getting into, but I was blown away with the sport. They asked me if I wanted to be the head coach and I thought ‘I think I’ll try this.’ It’s something new,” said Babey.
“I love what these guys can do on their sledge — it’s amazing. The skills that they show, the speed of their game and the shots they take and the handling of the puck.”
The job has presented Babey with the opportunity to represent Saskatchewan on the world stage.
“I’m very proud to represent Saskatchewan. It is my home province and without my time in Saskatoon and going to the University of Saskatchewan and playing all kinds of sports as a young man, I wouldn’t be here today,” said Babey.
“Saskatchewan is where my roots are. I’m still a lover of the Saskatchewan Roughriders and everything about Saskatchewan and this is just another part of the journey.”
It was in Saskatchewan where Babey was first introduced to coaching. He coached midget AAA in the city for the Saskatoon Blues while he was a student at the University of Saskatchewan and he went on to serve as the head coach for 27 seasons at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) of the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference, finishing his tenure with the Trojans in 2014 as the winningest coach in Canadian post-secondary hockey history. His retirement helped pave the way for an opportunity to lead his country to gold.
And from the Bridge City to Beijing, that opportunity to represent Canada at the Paralympics for the second time is an accomplishment not lost on him.
“When you’re in these training camps, running practices and meeting with coaches and players, you kind of get caught in it. But I find time to sit back and think ‘Wow. I’m going to my second Paralympics, I’m pretty lucky,’” said Babey.
“It is quite an honour and surreal at times.”
With Babey behind the bench, Team Canada officially begins their quest for gold at the Games on March 4, with a round-robin clash against the United States, with puck drop scheduled for 11:05 p.m. SK time.