How Christina Picton is leading the way for women’s para ice hockey

Canadian women's para ice hockey team captain Christina Picton. (Photo: Connor Mah)

When 11-year-old Christina Picton took to the ice for the very first time, it was love at first skate.

“I loved just the freedom that it gave me,” she says now. “It was the first sport that I didn’t have to depend on my legs at all.”

Seventeen years later, Picton is an accomplished para athlete who has broken barriers, both for herself and for her fellow female athletes. The current captain of the women’s national para ice hockey team, Picton was one of two women named to Canada’s National Para Hockey Development Team in 2019, and the first woman invited to try out for Hockey Canada’s senior national team later that summer.

And to hear her tell it, this is just the beginning — for both her and her women’s program.

Born with congenital femoral deficiency — a rare, non-hereditary birth defect that can affect the growth of the pelvis, hip bone and femur — Picton had knee construction on her left knee and underwent Syme’s amputation on her right leg at 16.

Picton remembers feeling excluded from her classmates growing up, and teachers struggled to make recesses and gym classes accessible and adaptive for her.

To keep their daughter active and find her a community, Picton’s parents enrolled her in wheelchair baseball when she was 10 years old. Despite how well she could throw, though, Picton found running the bases with a prosthetic leg difficult.

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It was Picton’s baseball teammates who first told her about para ice hockey, though they didn’t do the best job of selling the sport. Their biggest complaints were moving while wearing heavy equipment and how the sport was mentally taxing.

“The kids just told me how hard it was,” Picton says, laughing. “My first exposure was pretty negative, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to try that! That sounds awful — these kids hate it!’”

Having never seen para ice hockey — then primarily known as sledge hockey — played on TV, Picton was wary about giving the sport a try. But despite her hesitations, her father signed her up anyway.

Luckily, Picton’s entry into the sport couldn’t have been further from the reviews she’d received from her teammates.

“When I got on the ice for the first time and I only had to depend on my arms and my upper body strength, it was just a very freeing experience,” she explains. “I was able to not just participate but excel in it. I’m very glad I didn’t listen to those kids.”

Picton made Canada’s women’s national team in 2010 at the age of 17, and is now a veteran member of the squad. She is also an accomplished Para-Nordic cross-country skier, always looking to set new goals and push herself to new limits.

“I’ve never felt like I’ve plateaued,” Picton says. “I’ve always felt there’s so much more I can be working on and learning.”

As part of the National Para Hockey Development Team camp that capped off her 2018–19 season, Picton and then 16-year-old Raphaëlle Tousignant became the first two women to participate in Hockey Canada’s para hockey program, playing in a three-game series against the United States. Picton went pointless as Canada lost all three games to the Americans, but it was still a pivotal moment for women in the sport.

The Canadian women’s national team is not currently under the Hockey Canada umbrella, and lacks the sponsorships and resources that many Canadian national teams have. That’s one of the main reasons why participating in the development camp was an eye-opening experience for Picton.

“To be in an environment and under a program that has the equipment managers, that has all of the support and the status of what we’re aiming to achieve with our program, it was very inspiring,” Picton says. “It was a taste of what our program, our women’s program, has been working towards.”

But it was her experience at Canada’s senior national team tryouts that made Picton feel like she was taking her career to the next level, and she hopes to get another chance to make the team. Picton was the only woman of the 30 athletes invited to the nine-day selection camp in August 2019, and although she didn’t make the final 20-man roster, Picton has no regrets.

“Having the opportunity to be the first woman in Canada to try out for that team was incredible,” she says. “It was like the dream.”

In a normal season, the Canadian women’s team will hold an international series against teams from the U.S. and Europe. Though the pandemic has made it impossible to play games, Picton has kept up with daily training and maintained an upbeat attitude.

“The motivation is definitely still there, so every day is great.”

Now Picton has her eyes set on an even loftier goal: to represent Canada at the Paralympics in para ice hockey.

Though international para ice hockey has been a mixed event since 2010, Team Canada has yet to name a female player to its roster for any tournament. In fact, Norway is the only senior team that currently rosters a female athlete: Lena Schrøder, who became the first and so far only woman to compete in the event at the Paralympics in 2018.

A women’s-only para ice hockey event isn’t currently on the table for the Paralympics, but Picton is confident it will happen.

“I think we’ll be there in 2026,” she says.

Since Picton began playing para ice hockey, she says the sport has had nothing but a positive impact on her life. She has not only been able to maintain an active lifestyle, but also gain confidence and build life-lasting friendships.

Most importantly, the sport has provided Picton the opportunity to focus on becoming the best athlete she can be and inspire other women who look up to her.

“I think it’s important for any woman starting the sport at any age to know that there is a place for them. All you’ve got to do is work hard and see where it takes you.”

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