Age no barrier for Japan's grandpa goaltender


Pyeongchang (South Korea) (AFP)

At 61, Shinobu Fukushima is the oldest ice hockey player at the Winter Paralympics -- but the Japanese goaltender laughs off the suggestion that he might retire any time soon.

Para-ice hockey sees players with leg impairments strapped into double-bladed sledges, and they then use two short sticks to zip around the rink and shoot.

It is one of the toughest sports -- and most popular among spectators -- at the Paralympics, and players are kitted out in helmets and padding to avoid injury in clashes.

But Fukushima, who is competing in his fourth Paralympics in Pyeongchang, shrugs off the suggestion that his age is an impediment to playing at the highest level.

"I don't really think about it," he told AFP, after the Japan team lost 6-1 to Norway earlier this week. "I am just a player."

He admitted however he tried to retire on one occasion in recent years.

"I thought I wanted leave it to younger guys," he said.

Ageing athletes often opt for slower-paced Paralympic sports, in particular wheelchair curling, rather than the fast and furious form of hockey played at the Games.

Still, Fukushima is not the only ice hockey player in Pyeongchang getting on a bit. At least four other players -- three in the Swedish team and one in the Czech -- are over 50, highlighting a difficulty to interest the younger generation in the sport.

- Pulled out of retirement -

With only about 30 dedicated para-ice hockey players to pick from in the whole of Japan, Fukushima was pulled out of retirement to come to Pyeongchang.

Now when asked how long he plans to keep playing, he replies with laugh -- until 101.

His advancing years have made him something of a star back home in Japan.

Fukushima lost the use of his legs due to a spine injury sustained in a traffic accident aged 24. He first tried wheelchair basketball, before later taking up para-ice hockey.

He first competed at the 2002 Paralympics in Salt Lake City, and he has since appeared for Japan at three other editions of the Games.

His crowning glory was helping the side to win a silver medal in the Vancouver Games in 2010.

Still, Japan's ice hockey team have not done well in Pyeongchang. They have lost all four of their matches so far, including a 10-0 drubbing to reigning Paralympic champions the United States.

Player Wataru Horie said the disappointing performance was a sign that Japan needed some fresh blood in its para-ice hockey team, noting the average age of the side was around 42.

"Our average is very high, I am 38 years old, and I am one of the youngest," he said.

"We definitely need young players."

Still there is no ill feeling towards Fukushima, who is regarded as a pillar of strength and support for the younger players.

Asked whether he gets teased about his age, he replied with a loud laugh: "Other players call me 'grandpa'."