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How Paralympic Ice Hockey Is Evolving

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When the Paralympic Games come around every Olympiad, right after the Olympic Games come to a close, attention turns to how the sports and athletes differ between the two events. Some para-sports defy comparison to their able-bodied counterparts. For example, goalball, a Summer Games discipline, has no obvious Olympic equivalent, while the factored timing in skiing events can confuse novice viewers. But finding obvious similarities between versions of a sport can help inform our viewing. 

Para ice hockey, formerly known as sledge hockey, differs from the able-bodied version in key ways. Athletes sit on sledges, or sleds, that balance on two blades similar to those of a hockey skate, and their sticks have metal teeth that help the players propel themselves around the rink — they’re also handy when you’re looking to stab an opponent. The sledge is also a useful defensive tool, standing as an obstacle to players seeking a clear path to the net. Para hockey is also played in three 15-minute periods as opposed to the customary three 20-minute periods.

There are rather clear-cut ways to compare the development of sledge and stand-up hockey: shots on goal and shot-to-goal percentage. Sometimes, a focus on a similarity can help make the game just a little easier to understand.

First, let’s look at the shot data from the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi.

Para ice hockey teams saw fewer shots but more success

Para ice hockey teams during the 2014 Paralympic Games, by shots on goal and shooting percentage

Shots on goal
Team Games GOALS SCORED Total Per game Shooting pct
Russia 5 15 71 14.2 21.13%
Canada 5 18 102 20.4 17.65
USA 5 13 74 14.8 17.57
Czech Republic 5 8 73 14.6 10.96
Sweden 5 4 38 7.6 10.53
Norway 5 4 47 9.4 8.51
South Korea 5 6 75 15.0 8.00
Italy 5 6 86 17.2 6.98
Total 40 74 566 14.2 13.07

Source: Paralympic.org

In contrast, the stand-up hockey competition sees a comparatively lower shooting percentage on a much higher number of shots per game.

Stand-up hockey teams saw more shots but less success

Ice hockey teams during the 2014 Olympic Games, by shots on goal and shooting percentage

Shots on goal
Team Games GOALS SCORED Total Per game Shooting pct
Finland 6 24 183 30.5 13.11%
USA 6 20 178 29.7 11.24
Sweden 6 17 173 28.8 9.83
Czech Republic 5 13 146 29.2 8.90
Latvia 5 9 102 20.4 8.82
Slovenia 5 10 117 23.4 8.55
Russia 5 13 172 34.4 7.56
Canada 6 17 241 40.2 7.05
Austria 4 7 100 25.0 7.00
Slovakia 4 5 110 27.5 4.55
Norway 4 3 98 24.5 3.06
Switzerland 4 3 124 31.0 2.42
Total 60 141 1,744 29.1 8.08

Source: International Ice Hockey Federation

Liam Hickey, who helped bring Canada the para hockey silver medal in 2018 and who is an alternate captain for the team in Beijing, attributed this difference to a variety of factors, not just shot selection.

“Stand-up hockey is still faster than sledge, there’s no way around that,” he said, “and the speed of the game, longer sticks, more opportunities to shoot, less to shoot through — I think that’s just a big, big difference in the sledge game.”

Those differences are certainly there, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for adaptation. Let’s examine how para hockey changed in just the four years after 2014, by looking at the stats from the 2018 games in Pyeongchang.

Scoring rates soared at the 2018 Paralympics

Para ice hockey teams during the 2018 Paralympic Games, by shots on goal and shooting percentage

Shots on goal
Team Games GOALS SCORED Total Per game Shooting pct
Canada 5 43 124 24.8 34.68%
USA 5 40 128 25.6 31.25
Norway 5 16 62 12.4 25.81
Sweden 5 9 36 7.2 25.00
Czech Republic 5 11 68 13.6 16.18
South Korea 5 8 66 13.2 12.12
Italy 5 6 55 11.0 10.91
Japan 5 3 30 6.0 10.00
Total 40 136 569 14.2 23.90

Source: Paralympic.org

While the overall shots on goal per game stayed roughly consistent, there were big scoring spikes for certain teams. Team USA took 10.8 more shots per game in 2018 than 2014, while Canada took 4.4 more. The bigger change, though, was in shooting percentage: Every team that played in both the 2014 and 2018 Paralympics converted more of their attempts into scores, leading to 84 percent more goals scored.

Hickey attributes the better shooting to a heightened focus on shot selection and the tendencies of various goalies. “In 2014, obviously, it was pretty advanced,” he said, “but with the stats evolving the way they are in sledge and more effort being put into that, and the data collection around that, I think that’s where you see the higher percentage of goals on the amount of shots that are taken.”

This change was unique to para hockey. In stand-up hockey, both shots on goal and shooting percentage across the entire competition stayed relatively stable from 2014 to 2018, with an average of 2.3 fewer shots per game but a 1.5-percentage-point increase in shooting percentage. 

How can this inform our viewing? Well, for one, this data reinforces the idea that para ice hockey is played at a comparatively slower pace. This is important to know because many para-sports appear slower when viewed on television. This is not to say that para ice hockey itself is slow; it’s just that the typical frame of reference doesn’t do us all that much good. Shots on goal and shots-to-goal percentage also help us statistically identify where a mismatch might be, even if the goal tallies aren’t all that high.  

At the same time, it’s helpful to know that in sledge hockey, teams are more concerned with shot quality than quantity. And that these percentages increased so dramatically in just four years hints at a game that is still developing its approach to one of the key aspects of the sport. 

After all, you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take, but you also miss 100 percent of the shots that get blocked by a sledge. 

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