Putting on the sweater and going out onto the ice to represent Canada is both a point of pride and unifying moment for each member of the National Para Hockey Team. From different backgrounds and parts of the country, they share a common cause, as witnessed earlier this month in Elmira, where the team played a pair of exhibition matches against the U.S.
When the puck drops, it’s all about hockey.
Some came to the team having played the sledge version of the sport right from the start, while others learned to adapt later in life when their circumstances changed.
For team captain Tyler McGregor, losing a leg to cancer at 16 prompted the shift from able-bodied hockey to the style he now plays. In Corbyn Smith’s case, the sled has been a part of the game since he started playing at the age of 5. With both legs amputated, Greg Westlake played stand-up hockey before making the transition.
Whatever path they took, they’re getting to play the game they love, and at the highest level of athleticism.
“I quickly learned it’s a lot harder than it looks,” said McGregor with a laugh. “Some of it is very awkward to learn.”
He notes he had to learn a new skill set after losing a leg, working hard to learn the techniques that would land him on the national team as a teenager, starting in the 2012-2013 season.
“There were some things that were transferrable, and some things I had to learn from scratch,” he said of the transition.
Having grown up playing stand-up hockey with two artificial legs, Westlake, too, had to make some adjustments to sledge hockey.
Though the sport had been recommended to him, he was initially skeptical about the calibre of play.
“I needed to see it was a real, competitive sport,” said Westlake, who’s been with Team Canada since 2004-05.
He learned it was certainly that, and now knows full well the athleticism involved. All of the players have to work hard to stay in shape, even away from the organized time together, which typically amounts to seven to 10 days per month.
“You just have to make the most if it,” he said of the training time as a team. “And you have to work hard on your own – it’s about how hard you work when nobody’s watching.”
In his time, he’s seen the sport grow, and he’d like that to continue, with sledge hockey programs available to kids across the country.
“My vision long-term for the sport is that a kid can be from anywhere in Canada and have an opportunity to be part of Team Canada.”
It’s especially important for people with disabilities to stay active, to stay in shape, whether that’s playing at the national level or not, Westlake added.
Having grown up with the chance to play sledge hockey, Smith would certainly agree about the importance of having an opportunity.
The Monkton resident is one of the younger members of the team, but he’s been at it for four years now. There was no transition to the sled for him, unlike some of his teammates.
“I was pretty lucky to start playing early – I didn’t have to adjust to it like some of the other guys.”
Still, the level of athleticism and the drive to win are what push him to keep working at it, Smith added.
All three of McGregor, Smith and Westlake have tasted gold at the international level, most recently in 2017. They and their teammates share a common goal of returning to the top, which typically means defeating the U.S., the rivals they played in exhibition games last week in Elmira.
“That was one of the best moments of my life,” said Smith of the 2017 gold. “That’s where we want to be again.”
This is something of a down year for the team, as the World Championships won’t be held again until 2021, followed by the Paralympic Winter Games in 2022 in China.
“I’m looking forward to next year, and to the year after that,” said Smith.