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This summer Rye goes full MAC-cess for Canadian wheelchair basketball

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By Bryan Meler

The history of the Mattamy Athletic Centre is undeniable.

From its location within Maple Leaf Gardens—the former home of Toronto’s beloved hockey franchise—to becoming the venue where the Ryerson Rams won their first Ontario University Athletics championship, the MAC has developed quite the reputation.

Now in 2017, the MAC is becoming the home of wheelchair basketball events in Canada.

“If there’s an event, we know we want to have it at the MAC,” said Steve Bach, the president of Wheelchair Basketball Canada. “It’s a world-class facility.”

This summer, from June 8 to 16, the MAC will host the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation men’s U23 world championship. Team Canada will be joined by 11 other countries as they battle for gold on the MAC’s hardwood.

It’s not the first time the MAC has welcomed wheelchair basketball to its facilities. In 2014, it hosted the senior women’s world championship, and was also the site of the men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball tournaments at the 2015 Parapan Am Games. The MAC has established itself as an accessible facility, but its dressing room doors are too narrow for the athletes’ in-game wheelchairs—which are typically wider than the ones they use on a day-to-day basis.

In 2014, it hosted the senior women’s world championship, and was also the site of the men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball tournaments at the 2015 Parapan Am Games.

Two public elevators make it easy for all athletes to access each floor, while the freight elevator at the back of the MAC is used to transport the in-game wheelchairs. Once they’re delivered upstairs, they’re there to stay, with each team getting their own area to store their equipment.

“Not having to worry about our chairs is a huge plus for us,” said Vincent Dallaire, a member of the Canadian men’s team that won silver at the 2015 Parapan Am Games. “But I’d have to say the best thing about the MAC is the fact that they have a lot of accessible washrooms. The last thing you want to do is wait in line.”

Each of the MAC’s washrooms has an accessible stall. It’s a detail that might go unnoticed throughout the school year, but not when over a hundred wheelchair basketball players are getting ready for their games.

Bach says the MAC is the most convenient location because of the bevy of hotels that surround the facility. It also provides greater exposure to help the game grow.

“Having our games here in Toronto, it gives wheelchair basketball a much better chance to continue to expand,” said Liam Hickey, 19, a member of both Canada’s latest Parapan Am and Paralympic teams. “More people will get a chance to see how great our game really is.”

Compared to other countries, the popularity of wheelchair basketball in Canada is relatively low. There isn’t a Canadian university that has a registered team, while a few institutions in the United States, such as the University of Alabama, already offer scholarships to student-athletes playing wheelchair basketball.

Despite being less popular than it is south of the border, Canada’s success in wheelchair basketball has been unmatched in recent years. The men’s senior team won gold in three of the last five Paralympic Games, while the women’s senior team won three straight Paralympic gold medals from 1992-2000.

In 2013, the Wheelchair Basketball Canada National Academy opened in Scarborough. It’s the world’s first full-time, year-round training facility for wheelchair basketball players.

Each of the MAC’s washrooms has an accessible stall. It’s a detail that might go unnoticed throughout the school year, but not when over a hundred wheelchair basketball players are getting ready for their games.

“You’re taxing the mind and the body at a very high level when you play wheelchair basketball,” said Darrell Nordell, the head coach of Canada’s U23 team. “We want to be treated like we’re participating in an actual sport.”

Wheelchair basketball is very similar to conventional basketball, with a few important exceptions. Passes need to be more accurate so they don’t bounce off a player’s wheelchair, and coaches must make sure their on-court lineup adheres to a number-based classification system.

Players are sorted by classification numbers, ranging from 1.0 to 4.5, which helps identity the impact of their disability on the court. The lower the number, the more impact the disability is considered to have on a player. In international competition, teams cannot have a five-player lineup that exceeds 14 when their classification numbers are added together.

Players need to have a disability in their lower extremities to compete in international events. But that rule doesn’t apply in Canada, giving more people a chance to get involved in wheelchair basketball.

“My brother plays with me at times, even though he doesn’t have a disability,” said Dallaire, who has a 1.5 classification number. “Playing against people without any limitations is always a challenge; it’s made me tougher.”

The strength of the Canada’s U23 men’s team is yet to be seen, with their official roster being announced on April 15.

With experienced leaders in Dallaire and Hickey making an appearance at last week’s tryouts, and other fresh faces looking for their chance on the international stage, Team Canada will have the opportunity to join the Maple Leafs and Rams with their own championship win at the MAC.

“We have our eyes set for gold come this summer,” said Hickey. “I feel like that’s only natural as Canadians.”

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