By day, Peggy Assinck is a neuroscientist at one of the world’s top universities, where she works to unlock the mysteries around stem cells and multiple sclerosis.
She spends hours peering into a microscope at tiny cells, trying to understand why some people’s spinal cords heal better than others. Trying to understand if the most miniscule of alterations to those cells could lead to meaningful change in a person’s everyday life.
Outside the lab, Assinck can often be found in the gym or driving around England for an ice time in the middle of the night, all for the chance to keep pulling on a Team Canada sweater.
In between, she finds time to introduce the sport of Para hockey to women who’ve never tried it. Whether it’s helping a woman become more comfortable in a sled or starting the Great Britain women’s Para hockey team from scratch, Assinck is growing the game one athlete at a time.
“I feel like I owe it just to be able to support others and help them to be more independent, to push outside their comfort zone, to continue to become incredible young women,” Assinck said.
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Assinck has been a member of Canada’s women’s Para hockey team since it started in 2007, helping shape the program from a humble beginning to competing for gold in the Women’s World Challenge, an annual international tournament of the world’s best.
“She definitely is like a glue to our team and our program would be nothing without her, honestly,” Canadian captain Alanna Mah said. “She’s been there from the start and she’s seen everything.”
One thing Assinck hasn’t seen yet is the inclusion of women’s Para hockey on the biggest stage: the Paralympics. It’s her ultimate goal for the sport, even if it doesn’t happen until after her own playing career is done.
But first, the 40-year-old Assinck will be a key defender for the Canadian squad when they open this year’s Women’s World Challenge on Aug. 31 in Green Bay, Wis. The team plays its first game that day against the United States in a rematch of last year’s gold medal game, which the Americans won 5-1.
Her team knows she’s a communicator, someone who will help them see and understand things on the ice that other people might miss, skills she’s picked up in three decades in the game.
“She is definitely someone that is intellectual in nature,” Tara Chisholm, the team’s head coach, said. “She thinks the game, which isn’t hard to draw those conclusions when you think of her life outside of sport, of being a literal doctor in stem cell research. So her brain obviously works very well in the way of thinking logically, strategically.”
Fell in love with speed, physicality of game
Assinck spent most of her childhood playing able-bodied sports in her hometown of Apsley, Ont., a small township 200 km northeast of Toronto.
She was born with spina bifida, a condition that affects the spine and is usually discovered at birth. But Assinck’s condition wasn’t detected until she was 11 years old, when she was suddenly partially paralyzed from the waist down.
Her parents looked for a program that would keep Assinck active in sport, and discovered Para hockey. When she showed up to the rink in Omemee, Ont. that first day, Assinck had no idea what she was getting herself into.
She remembers “bumper car’ing” into people that day, loving that she could play a sport where she got to hit other players.
She also loved the freedom of speed. Assinck was getting used to having to move a bit slower around the world and the sport gave her the ability to go fast again.
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“I think back to those times and it was a really special time in my life, especially because I was adjusting to having a disability when I didn’t really relate to that previously,” she said.
But it was a few years later, when Assinck realized she could represent her country, that she really fell in love with the sport.
When the national team program began, Assinck chose to wear number 22 in honour of her role model, Hayley Wickenheiser of Canada’s women’s stand-up hockey team. With few female role models in Para hockey at the time, Assinck related to Wickenheiser’s fight for space in the sport, and her desire to change the world off the ice as a doctor.
It’s a fight Assinck relates to even more today, as her team fights for space and opportunities.
Building a program across the pond
But the first national team jersey Assinck wore actually had an American flag on it.
Assinck was prepared to play for Canada in the first all-female Para hockey game in Ottawa in 2007, but the American team didn’t have enough players to field a team. Assinck pulled on a red, white and blue jersey so the game could go forward.
Years later, and more steeped in the bitter rivalry between the two countries, Assinck laughed at the memory.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’m like, ‘Oh no, there’s photographs,'” Assinck said.
It’s a small example of Assinck’s work to grow the game internationally. While the Americans have a strong program now, the sport needs other countries to develop players in order to keep growing.
The hope is for women’s Para hockey to have enough teams for a world championship by 2025, a key benchmark to getting a women’s program into the Paralympics by 2030.
It means Assinck, and coaches with the Canadian program like Chisholm, are doing everything they can to get women playing the game internationally.
When Assinck moved to the United Kingdom to continue her stem cell research, she recruited 15 volunteers to help her start a national women’s Para hockey program.
The call out attracted 60 athletes, and two years later, a team that’s able to compete at an international tournament.
“If you look at Great Britain and the number of people that play Para ice hockey, almost half the teams now are actually women, which is amazing,” Assinck said. “So we have just created this inclusive space for women within Para ice hockey that wasn’t there prior to our program, which is really great.”
Assinck serves as the program’s head coach, but stepped away ahead of the upcoming world challenge to focus on her own preparation with the Canadian team.
It’s hard for her to not cheer for a program she started from scratch, but her players across the pond know they’ll be getting a different Assinck on the ice.
“When I put on that Team Canada jersey, I’ve been very clear with them that I’m going to be in Team Canada mode and I’m going to play at my absolute best,” she said. “That will help them to play their absolute best.”
Infusion of youth
Assinck will be playing on a Canadian team that’s been able to get on the ice together more this year than ever before, thanks to new sponsors like Canadian Tire and Bauer.
The roster has an infusion of youth, with the youngest player only 14 years old. Assinck is excited to see how fast the younger players are developing, how much the program has changed since that first game against the Americans.
She plans to keep fighting for a spot on the roster as long as she can, but knows the younger players will push her off the team eventually.
“That’s the most exciting thing.”
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