Greg Westlake knows all about the highs and lows of the Paralympics.
As a forward on Canada’s Para hockey team for more than 16 years, he’s experienced the rush of gold-medal games and the sting of defeat, the camaraderie of the athlete’s village and the gruelling preparation that goes into readying for the Games.
Now he’s soaking up all the memories one more time as he competes at his final Paralympics in Beijing.
“It’s my fifth Games but it never gets old,” Westlake told The Canadian Press before heading to China. “One of the biggest thrills in the world is putting on that jersey and going with your teammates, people that you’ve worked so closely with for such a long time now, and just leaving it all out there. So no matter what happens, we’re coming home proud as anything.”
The 35-year-old from Oakville, Ont., grew up dreaming of gold.
Westlake was born with malformed feet and had both of his legs amputated below the knee before he was 18 months old.
As a kid who used two artificial legs, he knew early on that his odds of playing in the NHL were slim. But when he watched his country play on sport’s biggest stage, he was inspired.
“Watching the Olympics and watching Team Canada win gold medals, that was something that I could aspire to and so that was really fun for me,” Westlake said.
He started skating as a toddler and was still a teenager when he took home gold from his first Paralympics in Turin in 2006. He later completed the full set, winning silver at Pyeongchang in 2018 and bronze at Sochi in 2014.
He has a chance to add one more in Beijing, but already earned another honour at the Games, carrying the Maple Leaf alongside wheelchair curler Ina Forrest at the opening ceremonies on Friday.
Being a flag-bearer was particularly special for Westlake, who’s retiring from competitive Para hockey after this Paralympics.
“I think my body made the decision for me more than anything,” he said of the move. “I’m just so proud of the body of work that’s gone into it. It really has been a lifelong journey for me, from the time I was three years old.”
Team Canada stumbled through its first game on the tournament in Beijing, dropping a 5-0 decision to the U.S. in group play. They’ll have a chance to recover Tuesday when they take on Korea.
This year’s Canadian squad features 10 players from the 2018 team that brought home silver after a heartbreaking 2-1 overtime loss to the Americans in the gold-medal game. Westlake is the second-most veteran player on the team, following Billy Bridges of Summerside, P.E.I., who’s competing in his sixth Paralympics.
Canada is a young, fast and deep group this year, Westlake said.
“It’s such a popular sport now in Canada,” he said from Calgary, where the team trained for nearly two months before heading to China. “When I was coming up, we were prominently from Ontario, Quebec. And now we really have people from all the provinces in Canada, we’re spread across the country.
“And I think we can just go over there and overwhelm some teams. I think we can go over there and run three, four lines and really just use our speed to our advantage and kind of overwhelm teams.”
The group is very capable of making the podium, he added, and getting to the top would mean “everything” to him.
“It’s been a lifelong journey for me so it’s not just these last four years of work,” Westlake said. “I think about my family and I think about going with my mom to mom and tot skates in Ottawa as a kid and learning to skate with her on two artificial legs. I just know how much (another gold) would mean to the people around me.
“It would just be amazing to come back and go on that tour and show people a gold medal and tell them that dreams can come true, no matter what situation you’re going into.”
Westlake has always set his sights high when it comes to inspiration. Like millions of hockey players around the globe, he’s always looked up to Wayne Gretzky and holds his memories of one of the sport’s biggest heroes close, including the time Gretzky called Canada’s Para hockey team before they played for gold in Turin.
“For me, I was 18 years old, I was just young and just so excited to compete and wear the jersey. And Wayne’s voice comes on and for me, that’s a hockey god, that’s the GOAT, that’s the greatest of all time, the great one,” he said. “And he gave us just an incredible speech about what it means to represent Canada and play for your country and to play for something bigger than yourself. And after that speech, we go out and have probably the best game of a team I’ve ever been on and we win the gold medal.”
Now Westlake’s working with his hero as an ambassador for Wayne Gretzky Estates.
“It’s just been incredible because Wayne was the greatest player of all time and he goes on and has been successful in everything he’s touched outside of hockey as well,” he said of the partnership. “So for me, I just look at that and that’s the blueprint. I want to pursue greatness, I want to be like that.”
Westlake has already begun his post-hockey career, working as a broadcaster for CBC and hosting shows like “Level Playing Field” on AMI-tv.
He wants to keep working in media, breaking through into mainstream sport, and is exploring other roles, too.
“I just want to keep pushing the boundaries. I’ve been trying my whole life to do great advocacy work for people with disabilities and Paralympians and I want to keep doing that,” he said.
“I believe there’s jobs available in pro hockey, in pro sport that should be available for people with disabilities. So I’m going to keep knocking on those doors and doing those things and hopefully great things come.”
Westlake said he’s always modelled his career off the female hockey players who’ve fought to break through the gender barrier in pro hockey.
Earlier this year, the Vancouver Canucks hired former agent Emilie Castonguay and Hall of Famer Cammi Granato as the first two female assistant general managers in the franchise’s history.
Others are sure to follow their path soon, Westlake said.
“It puts a smile on your face because now more than ever, we need to build each other up not tear each other down, and be supportive of people getting into Old Boys clubs and making it accessible for everybody,” he said.
“Whether that’s women or other minorities, that’s all great. We need to celebrate all success. It’s very encouraging what’s going on right now and it’s just going to keep happening.”
—Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press