He may not be a household name yet, but Greg Westlake is one of the most prolific scorers ever to hit the ice in international hockey, and local fans will have the great privilege of watching him in action as the Team Canada Sledge Hockey Team touches down in Trail next week.
Westlake and 20 players from the Canadian Sledge Hockey Team will join head coach, Mike Mondin of Trail, for its final selection camp at the Trail Memorial Centre October 21-27.
Westlake joined the National Sledge Team in 2005 and was named the captain of the team two seasons ago “for all the reasons that would define a captain,” explained Mondin.
“He is confident in his abilities, always well prepared to compete in all situations and is a leader on and off the ice. Greg always sets the pace and is determined to be successful. He is the fiercest of competitors that only rubs off on those around him . . . I know his teammates know he has their back for any reason.”
In last year’s World Sledge Hockey Challenge in Calgary, the Oakville native set a record by scoring nine goals and nine assists in five games to lead Canada to the gold medal over Norway.
Among his many accomplishments, Westlake has helped Canada win four World Challenges, in addition to a gold medal at the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino, Italy, gold at the 2008 Sledge Hockey World Championship, and bronze medals at the 2009 and 2012 World Championships.
But as the saying goes, “you haven’t seen nothin’ yet.” At age 26, Westlake is arguably just reaching his peak.
Born in North Vancouver, but raised in Ontario, Westlake was born with his feet turned backwards and had to have them amputated at just 18 months old. He grew up playing stand up hockey with prostheses and started sledge hockey with the Mississauga Cruisers at age 15, quickly graduating to the national team at 18.
“It’s one of those things where because I came from a stand-up hockey background that helps a lot,” said Westlake from Toronto. “Sledge hockey is hockey, it’s the exact same sport, it’s the exact same rules, so I wasn’t exactly learning a new game, I was just developing a different skill set, so it wasn’t the hardest transition ever for me.”
It took Westlake a few years to gain the confidence and become completely comfortable on the ice with the national team, but veteran line mates Brad Bowden and Billy Bridges certainly helped in his development. The trio has been a force in international sledge hockey for many years, and the magic they create on the ice beguiles the opposition.
“So many young hockey players play a very individual game. I think it’s so important to talk to your linemates and just really know what they’re thinking in their head and what they’re expecting from you, and you can really develop that chemistry.”
Sledge hockey is an intense and competitive game that has grown in the past few years at home and internationally. Since falling under the auspices of Hockey Canada, and the exposure generated by the 2010 Vancouver Paralympic Games, more and more cities and countries are developing programs, even making the game accessible for able-bodied players.
Countries like Japan, South Korea, and the Czech Republic are emerging sledge hockey nations, recently knocking off powerhouses like Canada, the U.S. and Norway.
“We can’t go to a tournament and rely on anything,” said Westlake. “It’s hard to make the semifinal, it’s even harder to win that game and just to get to the final is an accomplishment – then you still got to win that one. It’s difficult, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Despite the growing parity, the unique rivalry between Team Canada and our southern neighbour is as fierce as ever. Generated from sheer geographical specificity and the numerous ‘friendlies’ played to prepare for international competition, Westlake is no fan of the U.S., especially since it knocked Canada out of the gold medal game in each of the last two World Championships.
“I don’t have anything against anyone personally, but a good old-school quote from a fighter in the NHL is, ‘I try to hate everybody equally.’ It’s nothing personal, it’s just that we train so hard and we train for so long to get to a Paralympics or a World Championship and every guy on every other team, they’re in between you and your goals and your dreams, and everything you worked for, so it’s really hard to have a friendly relationship with someone who stands directly in the way of everything.”
Like all the players on Team Canada’s sledge hockey team, Westlake has faced adversity and overcome it his whole life, but since joining the team, his goals of “just playing hockey and traveling” have changed, while his admiration of his teammates and the sport has grown substantially.
“Since then (2005), I’ve had the opportunity to meet so many amazing people whether it’s a cancer survivor or somebody who came back from serving our country in Afghanistan and lost a leg there (Dominic Larocque). Just the opportunity to meet all these amazing people I never would have met, I think it’s really helped me to mature and grow as a person. It’s taken me from a kid who just wanted to play hockey, to someone who is really proud to be on the team and do work in the community and really be an ambassador for the game and for Hockey Canada,” said Westlake.
He looks forward to visiting Trail again, and invites everyone to come to the practices at the Cominco Arena, meet the players, and enjoy the sport. It’s what makes the team special, he says, and why everywhere they go they try to promote the sport of sledge hockey and share their unique stories.
A dinner with the Canadian Sledge Hockey Team is planned for Oct. 27 at the Colombo Lodge, at 7 p.m. Everyone is welcome. Tickets $25. Call 364-1968 or 362-5825 for tickets.