By Stefan Kubus -
The Mustangs once again made a spirited run to the North American PowerHockey Cup championship game, going undefeated to get there.
In the first game, they defeated the London Knights, 11-4. On Saturday, they beat the Ottawa Capitals and the Toronto Rock, 7-3 and 8-3, respectively, clinching the top seed for the elimination round. In Sunday’s playoff round, the Mustangs knocked off the Toronto Lake Raiders, 6-2, before taking out London again, 8-4, to put them back into the finals for the second straight time.
In the championship match against Minnesota, the Mustangs trailed 5-1 in the first period, but that didn’t damper their hopes one bit. The club fought all the way back to tie the game at eight aside with 1.3 seconds left in the third period, but the goal was disallowed on a high stick. Although it was a tough way to go out, the Mustangs captured the silver medal.
From MiHockey, a huge congratulations to the Michigan Mustangs on taking home silver. Great job representing the Mitten.
The Michigan Mustangs will be representing the Wheelchair Hockey League (WCHL) and all of Michigan this weekend in the 2012 North American PowerHockey Cup tournament in Ottawa, Ontario.
The 2011 U.S. PowerHockey Champions will face the London Knights on Friday, play a double-header Saturday against the Toronto Rock and the host Ottawa Capitals, and the semi-finals and finals run on Sunday and Monday. The remaining four teams in the tournament are the Calgary Selects, Minnesota Saints, Philadelphia PowerPlay, and Toronto Lake Raiders.
The WCHL is based out of Warren, where all the league and playoff games are played at a Salvation Army location. League commissioner and longtime Mustangs player Chris Lemieux, now 30, has been strongly involved in wheelchair hockey since he was 10-years old. He said that for the sport, this tournament is the grandfather of them all.
“They want it, and they want to win this trophy,” Lemieux said. “It means a lot to them. This is our Olympics. This is our equivalent of the Stanley Cup. You can’t get bigger than this.”
The Mustangs team is essentially an all-star travel team, consisting of WCHL players, that ventures to various PowerHockey tournaments around North America.
Within the WCHL, headed by Lemieux, there are four teams – the Cobras, Seals, Hornets, and Wolf Pack – with 10 players on each squad. Each game is played 4-on-4 not including a goaltender, with either plastic or light carbon Floorball sticks for the players, and a plastic ball, similar to that of a wiffle ball. The four teams each play a 12-game regular season campaign that runs from October through January. The season is then followed up by the playoffs, in which each team is given a chance to participate for the Wheeler’s Cup. All WCHL games are played at the Salvation Army in Warren.
Lemieux said that when the WCHL began in Michigan back in 1998, it was at a huge disadvantage against other leagues, like in Calgary, Alberta, which started in the mid-1980′s. However, once Lemieux came to be commissioner of Michigan’s wheelchair hockey league, he was shocked to see how much of an all-around hockey hotbed Michigan was. He attributes the league’s growth largely to this.
“Over the years, we’ve caught up,” Lemieux said. “Now, I think we’re producing better players because we spend more time on it. Calgary is maybe a little more selfish. They just go and play, and aren’t really about teaching the game and stuff like that. We managed to flip our organization around pretty quick.
“There’s teams in cities like North Carolina and Winnipeg struggling to find players. I was lucky enough to land near Michigan. I didn’t realize when I moved here how big the hockey is in Michigan. I had no idea. Now, I’ve been here 15 years, and I realize this is a hotbed. We should have the best wheelchair hockey team if we have the best everything in hockey in Michigan.”
In addition to traveling, an issue for some WCHL members playing on the Mustangs is the need for an electric wheelchair. PowerHockey, the official name for the electric wheelchair hockey sport, requires players to have an electric wheelchair, whereas the WCHL conveniently allows for the use of manual wheelchairs, as well. This, in turn, obviously means more players can participate.
The North American championship and U.S. national championship games alternate each year. Last season, the Mustangs captured the 2011 U.S. PowerHockey Championship. And just two seasons ago, the Mustangs made an inspiring, undefeated run to the championship game, where they ultimately lost, taking home the silver medal.
“When we lost last year, it was heartbreaking, but I think we almost had too much swagger,” said Lemieux. “I think some of the younger guys needed to be humbled. We’re going into this tournament that it’s not given, and we have to work for it… This year, we’re really determined to make a charge.”
But above all else, Lemieux said PowerHockey provides not only an activity for the physically handicapped, but also a tight-knit social community, as well.
“If you’re mentally handicapped, there’s a lot of activities and stuff like that out there for you, but if you’re just physically handicapped and you have no mental problems, there’s not really a lot of activities to do unless you’re physically really strong,” Lemieux said, citing sled hockey as one such activity for the physically strong.
“Our league is more of a social thing, too. Some of these guys aren’t going to go on to get jobs. I’m smart, but I still can’t find a job, because of physical limitations. This allows us to keep a friendship, a family bond.”
Fox Sports Detroit did a feature on the WCHL a few years ago.
Lemieux faced a near-death experience at a Minnesota tournament in 2001, completely unrelated to his muscular dystrophy, that required surgery. However, it was then that he truly realized how important the game was to him.
“It made me realize, yeah, I was disabled, but it had nothing to do with my disability. It was just some random thing that happened to me. I almost lost my life, and I had played hockey the day before. So, for the guys, I tell them to just have fun while they’re here, and that’s what hockey allows. It allows us to become friends. And we have a blast.”
That experience was a humbling one for Lemieux, and made him strongly consider the future of the game. If there’s one thing he said he could pass on to future generations, it would be the game itself.
“For me, it’s about giving back,” Lemieux said. “When I was a kid, I was 10 years old when I got on my first national tournament. I went from Calgary to Toronto, and that just blew mind because I saw other people who were just like me… The great thing about our team is that we have one guy who is 35, and then we just added a 13-year-old. It’s a nice blend, because we all teach each other. That’s my ultimate goal: to make everyone understand that you shouldn’t play just to compete and stuff, but if you can, teach someone else the game. Our motto for the league is, ‘Don’t just sit there. Play hockey.’ “
All games in this weekend’s PowerHockey Cup tournament will be played at the Montpetit Hall Gymansiums at the University of Ottawa.