Retired para ice hockey captain, who competed in five Paralympic Games, will be the face and spokesman for the Canadian team at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games.
On the journey home from his high-school prom, a car accident left Todd Nicholson a paraplegic – and propelled his life in a dramatically new direction. Growing up in his hometown of Dunrobin, Ontario, about 35 kilometers northwest of downtown Ottawa, Nicholson harbored aspirations of stardom in the NHL, a common dream for a hockey-obsessed Canadian teen. That hope had been shattered, but he soon developed a different one with encouragement and support from his family and friends. During his recuperation in 1987 at the Royal Ottawa Rehabilitation Centre, he was introduced to adaptive sports and had the good fortune of meeting and befriending Hervé Lord, a para ice hockey player on the Canadian Paralympic team. Lord became his mentor at this key time in his life and helped him appreciate the opportunity that lay before him in sports. Prior to his accident, Nicholson had gained exposure to a wide range of athletic pursuits, as is common for able-bodied youth in Canada.
THE DOOR IS WIDE OPEN
“Hervé said to me: ‘You’re young, you have experience in different sports, honestly, the door is wide open for whatever you want to do.’” Nicholson said this insight made him realize that, despite his own challenges in playing adaptive sports, he nonetheless had a huge advantage over para athletes who were born with their disabilities or had acquired them at a young age. “Unlike them, I always had access as a kid to sports facilities, coaching and all kinds of organized sport. So I was able to transfer my experience playing a sport as an able-bodied athlete to playing it as a disabled athlete.” This recognition – that access or the lack thereof could make such a profound impact on people’s lives – had a lasting impact on Nicholson. It continues to guide him today as he and his wife, Emily Glossop, a recreation therapist and former para-alpine
skiing guide, pursue their dream of building the Abilities Centre Ottawa. The proposed facility is modelled after the Abilities Centre in Durham, Ontario, which is a fully accessible recreation complex offering sports, fitness, arts, life skills, research and educational opportunities. However, at the time he made this realization, Nicholson had other matters to focus on – namely, completing his rehabilitation and finding his direction in life.
A NATURAL ATHLETE
A natural athlete, he would excel in a variety of para sports, eventually participating at the national or international level in multiple events, including wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis, triathlon, duathlon, marathons and para-skeleton. But it was para ice hockey (previously known as sledge hockey) that became his true passion, and he went on to forge a legendary, quarter-century career with Canada’s National Para Ice Hockey Team. “Sport took me around the world and gave me the opportunity to do some very cool and amazing things,” said Nicholson. “I didn’t do any of this on my own. I’ve had tons of support. But through each of those opportunities, I’ve been able to open more doors, and then new opportunities have presented themselves.”
CHEF DE MISSION
In January 2017, yet another door opened for Nicholson when he was named Team Canada’s Chef de Mission for the 2018 Paralympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
The PyeongChang Paralympics are scheduled to run from March 9-18, 2018. There are five sports on the program: wheelchair curling, Para ice hockey, Para alpine skiing, Para snowboard and Para Nordic, which includes cross country and biathlon events. The Games are expected to attract up to 670 para athletes, competing in 80 medal events. Canada plans to participate in all five sports, with approximately 55 athletes. The total team, including coaches and support staff, numbers approximately 115.
Nicholson’s Paralympic experience playing para ice hockey spanned five Winter Games, from 1994 in Lillehammer to 2010 in Vancouver.
A winner of three Paralympic medals, he earned gold in Torino 2006, silver in Nagano in 1998 and bronze in Lillehammer. He also won eight medals at World Championships. Once ranked among the top six players in the sport, he was extremely versatile, able to play any position on the ice. Nicholson captained the Canadian team for 15 years, was named to the Paralympic All-Star Team in 1998 and 2002 and carried the flag for Team Canada at the opening ceremony of the 2006 Games. After retiring from play, Nicholson continued to engage with Paralympic athletes – and to gain a broader perspective of their needs – as a senior sports administrator. From 2013 to 2017, he advocated for Paralympic athletes as chair of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Athletes’ Council and as a member of the Governing Board for the International Paralympic Committee. He also contributed as the IPC Athlete Representative to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and as a Paralympic Games Committee representative.
With his decades of experience in sport, Nicholson is in a better position than most to understand the challenges athletes face at high-pressure international events,
and help them turn in their best performances. Team Canada’s objective in South Korea is a top-three finish, and Nicholson believes that target is within reach.
AWARENESS OF PARALYMPIC SPORT
Looking back, Nicholson is amazed at how Paralympic sport has grown in popularity. In Lillehammer, he recalls just six spectators in the stands, two of them his parents, for the opening para ice hockey game. Sixteen years later, at Vancouver 2010, he played the last game of his professional career to a jam-packed crowd that included 75 of his friends from Dunrobin. Another encouraging sign, said Nicholson, is that he no longer needs to explain to people what the Paralympics are. “I do a lot of public speaking, a lot of corporate events and the like. In the past five or six years, only very rarely anymore do I have to explain my sport or what Paralympic sport is. That tells me the messaging is getting out there, people are aware that para sport is available, right from grassroots to elite.” As he prepares to depart for South Korea, Nicholson is eager to talk about his top priorities as Canada’s Chef de Mission at the Games. One of his objectives is to “raise the profiles of at least a couple of our athletes to become household names.” This will involve working closely with the media to help them identify compelling stories and give more substantial coverage to the top performers, as is typical in
the coverage of able-bodied sport.
Building the profiles of Paralympians is important because it will help others in the disability community see what is achievable, he said. Additionally, Nicholson is working to encourage corporate Canada to “increase its support for Paralympic athletes, both on and off the field of play.” His message is that when companies sponsor Paralympians, they’re not only gaining access to amazing stories of individuals who have overcome difficult challenges and achieved great success, but also they’re helping create positive social change. I believe businesses can see value in showing leadership in this area, he said. In his day job, Nicholson has worked for the Federal Government of Canada for over 20 years. He is currently working for the Canada Border Services Agency.