Lying in hospital after a prom night car accident left him a paraplegic, Todd Nicholson asked his parents what he was going to do with his life.
“‘We don’t care what you do,'” he recalls them telling their 18-year-old son. “‘We don’t care how you do it, but there’s somebody out there who will help us get to wherever you want to go.’
“At that point I had no idea sport was where I was going.”
But that was exactly the path Nicholson would take, and after 22 years with Canada’s sledge hockey team, plus seven more on the administrative side of sports after retiring, he was named Tuesday as the country’s chef de mission for the 2018 Paralympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“This one is a great honour because of everything that’s transpired over time,” Nicholson said in a telephone interview.
A teen with NHL aspirations â€” he readily admits now that was never going to happen â€” Nicholson picked himself up after that terrible day in 1987 and went on to have a storied career on the ice for Canada.
“Paralympic sport gave me those opportunities to follow through on a lot of those goals and dreams that I had set for myself as a kid,” said the 47-year-old Ottawa native. “Those goals and dreams had to change a little bit, but they were just as important and just as powerful.
“I just had to use some different types of equipment to get there.”
Nicholson played with the national team from 1989 to 2010, winning Paralympic gold, silver and bronze. He was there when sledge hockey made its debut at the 1994 Games and wrapped up his career on home soil in Vancouver in 2010.
As chef de mission in South Korea, Nicholson will be the face and spokesman for the Canadian team.
A full-time federal government employee for his day job, he has held a number of positions in para sport since retiring from sledge hockey to prepare him for this new challenge.
Nicholson currently serves as the chair for the International Paralympic Committee Athletes’ Council, a role that will come to an end in March. He is also the Canadian Paralympic Committee representative to the board of directors of Own The Podium, the government body that distributes money to sports federations.
On top of that, Nicholson has experience in planning and administration at every Olympic and Paralympic Games since 2012, including in the lead-up to 2018.
“It’s a great opportunity to take a lot of what I’ve learned internationally,” he said. “All the things I’m doing right now is volunteer. It’s not for the recognition, it’s not for the awards, it’s not for any of that stuff.
“It’s to provide the opportunities to athletes that I got.”
Canada won 16 medals at the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia, including seven gold, two silver and seven bronze.
Nicholson’s work starts now, with a main focus on making life as easy as possible for the Canadian team on the ground in South Korea.
“We’re going to have challenges, I guarantee it,” said Nicholson. “But if we can limit any of the challenges for our athletes and coaches are going to experience, that’s my job.”
Canada’s flag-bearer for the opening ceremony at the 2006 Paralympics in Turin, Italy, Nicholson’s career as an athlete was littered with accomplishments. But when asked if there was one that stood out, he paused to collect his thoughts.
“Every time I put that jersey on,” said Nicholson. “From the first time I was asked to be on the team to the last time I put it on, and even to today when they gave me a coat as chef de mission, the hair on the back of my neck stands up.”
He wants to make sure Canada’s Paralympic athletes get to feel the same way in 2018.
“That’s probably the biggest highlight â€” that sense of accomplishment,” said Nicholson. “That sense of pride of representing your nation and having the ability to be able to do what some people think is impossible.”
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press