WEST VALLEY CITY — Like most sledge hockey players, Bengt-Gosta Johansson of Sweden recalls well the first time he took to the ice.

"Oh, yes I remember that big," he says, looking for the words in English to explain it.

It was on a frozen pond. The sleds were wooden and heavy with long runners. The sticks were straight and rounded like broom handles. Cardboard boxes served as goals. There were no goalies.

That was around the time the Beatles invaded America.

The 57-year-old grandfather has played the sport he practically invented in five decades and two millenia, making him the James Naismith and the Gordie Howe of sledge (sled in the United States) hockey. He still is a member of the Swedish national team.

"I born for ice hockey and sledge hockey. I was one of three, four guys in Sweden that started sledge hockey in the whole world. So, I born for it," he says.

Johansson lost his legs in a motorcycle crash, riding in the sidecar, when he was 15.

The fledgling sport nearly died out in the first three years but a loosely organized league of five teams, composed of disabled and able-bodied players, kept it going.

By the the mid 1970s, sledge hockey was big enough to draw some international attention. Two Swedish teams played an exhibition match in 1976 at the first Olympic Winter Games for the Handicapped (later to be called Paralympics) in Ornskoldsvik, Sweden.

It wasn't until 16 years later that the Swedish Disabled Sport Federation provided funding for a national Paralympic committee, with Johansson as its head. Meantime, the sport spread in Europe, the United States and Canada.

Johannson doesn't have to dig deep to come up with his fondest memory.

"Lillehammer," he says without hesitation. "It was the first big, big tournament."

Sledge hockey made its debut in that Norwegian village at the 1994 Paralympic Winter Games. Fittingly, Sweden won the gold medal.

Johansson has played in 12 Paralympic Games, six winter and six summer. Wheelchair basketball and sitting volleyball are his summer sports.

Friday will be the gray-bearded pioneer's last game as a member of the Swedish national team.

"I shall not play anymore," he said. "This is my last tournament."


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