VANCOUVER, B.C. - Like every other athlete, Jean Labonte wants to win gold at the Paralympics.

But the captain of Canada's defending champion sledge hockey team hopes disabled sports is the biggest winner when the country hosts its first Winter Paralympics.

Labonte, who lost his leg to cancer, was at a loss for words when he was named Monday as Canada's flag-bearer for the Paralympic opening ceremony. The Gatineau, Que., resident looked stunned when the announcement was made to cheers and applause from other Canadian team members.

Once the news sank in, Labonte climbed onto a stage and proudly waved a Maple Leaf before a small crowd in the same downtown square that was a focal point for celebrations during the recent Winter Olympics.

"I did not expect this," said Labonte, 40, who will lead the Canadian team into B.C. Place during Friday's opening ceremonies. "It is an unbelievable honour to be able to carry the flag in any Paralympic Games, but especially in Canada.

"I'm still in shock."

The Paralympics, which will be held in both Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., are scheduled to end March 21. Labonte hopes their impact will be felt for years to come.

"I hope it will help the Paralympic sports to grow even more, whether it's skiing, curling, sledge hockey or the summer sports," he said. "I think it will raise the visibility of the Paralympics.

"Because you have a disability (it doesn't mean) you can not perform or do great things in life. I am not talking only sports. It does not stop anyone from doing anything. If that is one thing we can remember the Paralympics for, that would be great."

As a kid growing up Labonte always loved hockey, but he never played the sport. When he was 17 doctors found osteosarcoma cancer in his leg. By the time Labonte was 20 the leg was amputated above the knee.

Strangely, losing his leg opened the door for Labonte to live a dream. National team veteran Herve Lord introduced him to sledge hockey and convinced him to try out for the team.

"I played street hockey but never organized hockey," said the soft-spoken Labonte. "It was something I always wanted to do.

"After losing my leg and finding this great sport, it's 'wow'. I play hockey now. I represent my country. It's a great privilege to be able to wear the Canadian jersey and to be playing for my country. Not a lot of people can do that."

Labonte, who works as a software designer, has competed in three previous Paralympics. He won gold in 2006 in Turin, Italy, and silver at the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan. He also has played in five sledge hockey world championships, winning gold in 2000 and 2008, and bronze in 1996 and 2009.

Blair McIntosh, chef de mission of the Canadian team, said Labonte's contribution to the Paralympics extends off the ice.

"He not only embodies the Paralympic movement and the spirit of Paralympic sport, but his contribution to the Paralympic Games both on and off the field of play is absolutely amazing," McIntosh said.

Canada will send a team of around 53 athletes and about 50 support staff to the Paralympics. The competition will attract 1,350 athletes and team officials from 44 countries.

Canada's goal is to win enough gold medals to finish among the top three countries. The International Paralympic Committee ranks countries on their gold medal performance.

"We are very confident we can do that," said McIntosh. "We are going to carry the momentum of the Olympics into our Paralympic Games."

Carla Qualtrough, president of the Canadian Paralympic Committee, said high expectations have been placed on the team.

"No pressure," she joked. "You will not only meet them, you will exceed them.

"You guys are the next generation of Canadian heroes. Make us proud."

At the 2006 Paralympics in Turin, Canada was ranked sixth after earning 13 medals, including five gold, three silver and five bronze.

Russia led the medals table with 13 gold and 33 total medals. Germany was next with eight of its 18 medals being gold.

Ukraine, France and the U.S. each had seven gold medals.

The alpine skiing, biathlon and cross-country skiing competitions will be held in Whistler. Sledge hockey and wheelchair curling will be staged in Vancouver.

The Paralympics will receive 50 hours of television coverage, split between English and French.

Both the Canadian men and women's hockey teams won gold at the Olympics. Labonte said the sledge hockey team wants to continue the gold rush.

"Gold is our objective," he said. "We hope the women and the men winning their gold brings us the energy. We hope to carry that energy over to our Games.

"All I can promise is we will work hard and do our very best. Hopefully that is gold in the end."