Playing for the love of hockey … and country

It was still the first period of the first game in Team Canada’s three-game series against the United States when the punches started flying. It wasn’t a full fight, but Tyler McGregor was there to make a statement. “We’ve been on the wrong side of many of the games and in tournaments against them i

Last updated on May 03, 23

Posted on Mar 23, 23

8 min read

It was still the first period of the first game in Team Canada’s three-game series against the United States when the punches started flying. It wasn’t a full fight, but Tyler McGregor was there to make a statement.

“We’ve been on the wrong side of many of the games and in tournaments against them in recent past,” said McGregor, who has played forward for Canada’s para hockey team for the last 10 years and was named captain in 2019. McGregor received a roughing minor, as did US players Declan Farmer and Jack Wallace.

“They have a great team and lots of respect for them. For myself what was going through my mind is just trying to kind of send a message that they’re not going to come and walk over us anymore. Our team’s here to compete and try to win,” McGregor added.

He’s not wrong about the USA team getting the better of the Canadians. Canada last won gold at the Paralympics in 2006 (when it was then known as sledge hockey), while the Americans have claimed the last four Paralympic titles. At the world championship, which has happened 11 times since 1996, Canada last took the top spot in 2017, with their rivals winning the last two (2019 and 2021), both hosted by Ostrova, Czechia.

The intensity of the rivalry is nothing new to defenseman Rob Armstrong, who has been on the team since 2016, winning the worlds in 2017 and Paralympic silver in 2018 and 2022.

“It’s all respect off the ice. On the ice, things can get heated but I think we’re just two competitive teams who respect the game of hockey and respect pushing that game of sledge hockey to its absolute limits. It’s always been USA-Canada one-two. It’s flipped a couple of times, but it’s always been that battle and rivalry, so those games can get heated. They’re faster, competitive, and that’s just something you expect going into those games,” he said.

With the next world championships set for Saskatchewan in May, both teams were in Elmira last week for a six-day training camp and the three-game tune-up series. Canada is in a transition phase as 2006 gold medalist Greg Westlake retired after last year’s Beijing Paralympics following 19 years with the team, while Billy Bridges, another member of that squad, was not on the roster in Elmira.

“We’re on a journey to become Team Canada,” said coach Russ Herrington.

Head coach Russ Herrington, who took over the job last August, addresses his players during practice. [Bill Atwood]

“We’re really trying to maintain our focus within a comparison just internally right now. US is the best team in the world so it’s hard to use them all the time as a measuring stick because that’s a tough thing to live up to. But I think our guys are feeling well about the level of compete that we’re bringing every night and how tough it is to play against us right now,” said Herrington.

After spending seven seasons as an assistant, Herrington was named coach last August, taking over for Ken Babey, who left to coach team Norway.

The Americans won all three games by scores of 1-0, 9-3, and 2-1. The first was an overtime victory, while the final match-up saw the game-winner come from the stick of Wallace (assisted by Josh Pauls) with 1.6 seconds left on the clock. Despite the losses, McGregor, who potted two power-play goals in game two, had a positive outlook on the week.

“I thought we had a lot of growth. I thought we played really well in two of three games. And obviously both of those one-goal games had tough losses. Outside of that, obviously game two definitely wasn’t our best performance, but I think one of the things that we talked about as a team throughout the week was that regardless of what happens, we don’t view it as failure, we just view it as feedback,” he said.

He added that the team is looking really good for May and has shown a lot of growth since the start of the season.

“We still have a few months of preparation. We have a great young team who has lots of energy, who cares a lot about their investment into our team and our preparation and cares a lot about each other as well.”

The series was a bit of a homecoming for two team members; Armstrong is from Erin, while forward Corbyn Smith hails from Monkton.

“Being on a national team, we’re very grateful to travel the world and compete against countries all over the world. Hockey and Canada, they just go together. Being so close to home, having friends and family to not just see you play for the first time but to watch you play in person for the first time, it’s a special opportunity,” said Armstrong.

Smith spoke to The Observer after the first game on Wednesday night, where his number 9 jersey was being sported by a large contingent of fans.

“The team kind of jokes around about it a little bit, and they call them the Smitty Committee. So I’m definitely not unfamiliar with having fans in the stands, that’s for sure. But in terms of playing so close to home, I think it’s awesome. I do get a lot of people that come out and travel a lot, but at the same time there’s a lot of people from back at home that maybe can’t travel…as far to come watch, so it’s awesome to play 40 minutes from home where we can pretty much get the majority of everybody out to come support us,” he said of the friends and family in attendance at the WMC.

Smith scored Canada’s lone goal in the third game on Saturday.

McGregor, Armstrong and Smith all took slightly different paths to Team Canada. At age six, Smith was diagnosed with neuroblastoma in his spine, which pinched nerves in his right leg, making it shorter and weaker than his left. Armstrong also lost mobility as a kid due to a spinal virus that damaged muscles in both his legs. His left one never fully healed.

Playing standup hockey, McGregor broke his leg in a game at 15, and four months into the recovery process doctors discovered he had spindle cell sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. After a few weeks of chemotherapy, he was told that he required an above-the-knee amputation to save his life.

“My initial reaction was just devastation. It was one of heartbreak and sadness, and right away you start asking all the questions you shouldn’t: ‘Why is this happening to me,’ etc, etc. I was just feeling almost defeated for a little while, and it was challenging. That certainly wasn’t an everyday thing. I had a lot of good people around me to still be grateful for, but there were definitely some days for sure, the day that I found out but also many days that followed that were really difficult to deal with,” McGregor explained.

At 29, McGregor has lived nearly half his life as an amputee and is “completely grateful in a weird way” for what happened.

“I don’t know if, as an able-bodied athlete, I would have ever had the chance to play for Team Canada and to have the experiences that I’ve had.”

For the two-time world champion (2013, 2017) and three-time Paralympic medalist wearing the maple leaf is one of the highest honours of his life.

“I often think about just how grateful I am to have grown up in Canada, to still call it home and be surrounded by really respectful, kind, generous people and live in a democratic society. I’m extremely grateful to be from Canada and to play our national sport. That’s pretty special,” he said.

A seven-year veteran of the team, Smith said there is a difference between when he first represented his country and now when he puts on the sweater. Smith was also part of the 2017 gold medal-winning team and won silver at the 2018 Paralympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

“The first time I put it on, I was so nervous. I was really jittery, but at the same time, I was super proud. It was just one of those things that I felt happened so fast, and it was almost one of those memories that you kind of blacked out just because of everything that’s going on. Now it’s a lot of the same feelings. I still get nervous but I’m a lot more relaxed and a lot more poised. But I’m still probably even more proud than I was back then. I’m still super honored,” said Smith.

While the world championships are just seven weeks away, the main focus is on 2026 and winning that Paralympic gold medal that has so far eluded all three players.

“We have a couple side things going on like the World Championships and we’re obviously going to do our best to prepare for those. At the end of the day, the gold medal at the Paralympics is exactly what we want. We have a really young team this year. So there’s going to be a lot of development going on right now. We’re not focused on any other team right now except for ourselves. We’re treating every opportunity as a growing opportunity to get better every day,” Smith added.

The focus is on the process rather than the result, McGregor said.

“I think that’s been kind of a roadblock for us in the past is just being too hyper-focused on a gold medal and kind of forgetting about or overlooking some of the finer details of our day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year preparation.”

“We’re lucky right now that we have three years to figure that out,” added Armstrong.

Team captain has mission inspired by Terry Fox

Inspired by Terry Fox’s 1980 Marathon of Hope, Team Canada captain Tyler McGregor is continuing that legacy by skating a marathon in his sled on 10 different outdoor skating rinks across Canada, dubbing it the Sledge Skate of Hope.

“He’s been a major inspiration in my life, for many reasons, even more so than the fact that we both had similar cancers and became amputees,” McGregor said of Fox.

“It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do in terms of a major fundraiser, and trying to continue to support organizations that were life-changing to me.”

McGregor did his original skate of 25 kilometres in February 2021, with the goal of raising $25,00 for cancer research. He raised more than $31,000 that year.

Having last year taken time off from the fundraiser to focus on the 2022 Paralympics, McGregor sets his sights on raising $100,000 for the Terry Fox Foundation this year.

“It’s been an incredible experience,” McGregor said.

“Travelling across the country, meeting people in different communities and young people or people of all ages, battling cancer or who have battled cancer and either meeting them in person or getting messages from them. Ultimately, the inspiration behind it was just both Terry Fox and honoring his legacy, but also, just my time in a children’s hospital. That’s something that had a profound impact on my life.

“I wanted to do my part to make an impact and hopefully help improve the treatment of cancer and save more lives through both raising money and awareness.”

McGregor started his journey at the Emera Oval in Halifax, and has since made stops in Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, Manitoba, Quebec, BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

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