At the Paralympics, Sled Hockey Is Not Necessarily a Young Man’s Game

At the Paralympics, Sled Hockey Is Not Necessarily a Young Man’s Game

He manages with what he has, a blend of 30-and-under players who represent the future and spry veterans like Karlsson, who has been playing so long that he won gold for Sweden at the Lillehammer Paralympics in 1994.

“Yeah, I know — I’m old,” Karlsson said.

He appeared in the next three Paralympics, then missed the last two because work prevented him from training enough. But he was asked to rejoin the Swedish team last year for its qualification pursuit. The sport is far faster, he said, than it used to be, and teams are more competitive, forcing him to compensate for his diminished skill with his understanding of the game.

“The best would be to combine the speed I had when I was young and the knowledge I have now,” Karlsson said. “That’s the problem with everything.”

Nilsson transitioned to goalie after about a year playing forward because, he said with a laugh, he was too slow. He wears glasses beneath his mask, infusing him with a kindly, studious air. Even though Sweden finished sixth at the world championships last April, Nilsson was named the tournament’s best goaltender for making an astonishing 144 saves. He received a small trophy that may or may not have meant a lot to him.

“He doesn’t talk a lot,” his son Hampus said. “If you ask him, he’d say, ‘Yeah, I guess.’”

Taking to sled hockey when he did helped Nilsson bond with his children, especially Hampus, 22, who travels with the team, and also studies and watches the sport with such fervor that friends have taken to calling him the Google of sled hockey. Hampus has memorized the seven other rosters and loads of statistics, and he knew all about Fukushima, who credits his longevity to weight training — the sporadic kind.

“I train with dumbbells,” Fukushima said through an interpreter. “I don’t train hard because of my age. I do enough when I have to.”

This is probably Fukushima’s final Paralympics, Nakakita said. But Hrbek relishes playing a physical, full-contact style that bruises his body and tests his capacity for punishment. It is what he knows, what he likes, and at 53, he is not about to change.

“After every season, I tell myself that I’m done,” Hrbek said. “To the point where I want to quit. But then I rest up and I get back to my workout routines, I start swimming. By the time the ice is back on, I just want to play again.”

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