Torino, ITALY – Greg Westlake has come full circle. The sport he had no time for is now the sport he loves.
A handful of years ago, Westlake, who is a double below-the-knee amputee, was playing able-bodied ice hockey a couple of times a week. He’d strap on his prosthetics, slip on his goalkeeper’s gear and was ‘living the Canadian dream’.
“I did it all, played hockey in the winter, ball hockey in the summer, everything. I wanted to be the first amputee in the National Hockey League,” he says.
The idea of playing sports for the disabled never entered Westlake’s mind. “Not much athleticism in that,” he thought at the time.
But the wear and tear of playing in net – going down to make the save, getting back up, a couple dozen times a game, 80 times a season – took its toll. Westlake would go home after games, take off his artificial legs and he’d be in pain as he sat in front of the television. He finally had to abandon his dream of becoming professional hockey player when one night the back of his knees were full of pus.
When someone sought him out to give Sledge Hockey a try, Westlake had no idea what the person was talking about. But he went to the practice, mostly as a favour to the person.
“I hated it,” says Westlake, during a break at the Torino 2006 Paralympic Winter Games. “I really didn’t have the desire to play. I looked down at the athleticism. It’s not hockey.”
“The sled didn’t fit. I could not get my balance. I thought there was no way I was going to play this game. I had just come from playing real hockey and this was not for me.”
Westlake is an accomplished golfer and no one doubted his athleticism and that’s why people never gave up on him. Arrangements were made to get him a proper sledge and Westlake agreed to give it another try.”
This time something clicked and it did not take Westlake long to get hooked and instead of trying to stop the puck, he was asked to play forward where the idea is to score.
“I still feel I am playing hockey,” says Westlake. “I’ve tried other sports, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair golf, and this is the closest anything has come to the real thing. It so much like stand-up hockey. The speed is there. You can hit and the strategy is the same.”
Westlake became a member of Canada’s National Sledge Hockey Team three years ago and the 2006 Paralympic Winter Games marks the first time he’s competed at the Para-Games.
As for his one-time critique about the lack of ‘athleticism’ of sledge hockey players, Westlake knows he spoke without knowing the facts.
“Those guys,” he says as he points down the hallway with all the team’s dressing rooms, “are real athletes.”