2019 wphc garrett riley feature

Have dream, will travel

A road trip from Brantford to Montreal played a pivotal role in Garrett Riley’s journey to Canada’s National Para Hockey Team

Jason La Rose
May 4, 2019

How far would you go to make your dream a reality?

For most, it’s a rhetorical question. For Garrett Riley, you can put an actual number on it – 651 kilometres.

In April 2017, looking to kick-start his burgeoning para hockey career, Riley made the six-hour drive from his home in Brantford, Ont., to Montreal for the Paralympian Search, a Canadian Paralympic Committee event where interested athletes could meet the staff involved in different sports.

There was no ice time, no promise of anything more than a handshake, but that was enough for Riley.

“I heard that the coaches were going to be there, and it was nice to meet them and get my foot in the door.”

Fast forward two years, and Riley is wrapping up his first season with Canada’s National Para Hockey Team, helping Team Canada defend its gold medal at the IPC World Para Hockey Championship in the Czech Republic.

“I don’t think words can describe it,” the 24-year-old says of representing his country. “It’s an unbelievable feeling. Just to be able to put that Maple Leaf on your chest is unbelievable. That’s all I [can say].”

While the meeting in Montreal was the pivotal moment on his path to the national team, Riley’s journey began in 2010, when he started experiencing pain in his knee while playing minor hockey.

After multiple visits to the doctor – “They just kept telling me it was growing pains.” – the Brantford MHA product was diagnosed with osteosarcoma and underwent surgery in early 2011.

Life went on as normal for the next few years, until the pain returned in 2016. It ended his stand-up hockey days and led him to para hockey and the Hamilton Sledgehammers, thanks to a Google search by his brother, Dalton.

“Hockey has been my life since I was little. I started playing in Hamilton, and [Dalton] took me to the ice time.

“The first time on the ice was pretty incredible. It made me feel like I had that piece back in my life. It was missing for a long time, and that was hard on me.”

But still, the pain persisted. It continued to worsen until Riley hit the point of no return in October 2017.

“I drove myself home from work and I had to crawl into the house,” he says. “I couldn’t even put weight on my leg.”

After more tests were done, the inevitable conclusion was reached – amputation.

“I kind of thought throughout the whole process – the chemo process, cancer process – that eventually I would have to get my leg amputated,” Riley says. “With the pain I had going on, the internal prosthetic wasn’t doing enough for me, I feel like it was holding me back a lot.

“There were other options other than amputation, but there was only a five or 10 per cent chance of it working, so I thought the amputation would be a lot better.”

Determined to not let the loss of his leg change his life, Riley was back in a sled almost immediately and was back in the line-up with the Sledgehammers by December.

Six months after his surgery, Riley made the all-important trip to Montreal.

“He came up, introduced himself, and right off the get-go we noticed he had a nice presence about him; he was athletic-looking and he had a hockey background,” says Ken Babey, head coach of Canada’s National Para Hockey Team.

“What really got me was that he drove six hours for this one shot at saying hello to us and getting some interest from us. From there we gave him kind of a roadmap – here’s what you have to do – and he did that.”

Riley’s first camp invitation from Hockey Canada came last spring, a year after the Paralympian Search, and he cracked the roster for Canada’s National Para Hockey Development Team for a three-game series against the United States.

Next came an invite to Canada’s National Para Hockey Team selection camp last September, and he made his national team debut at the Canadian Tire Para Hockey Cup in London, Ont., in December.

All in all, not a bad 20 months.

So where do we go from here? While the immediate focus remains on winning gold in the Czech Republic and cementing his spot on the national team roster next season and beyond, Riley can’t help but look three years down the road to the biggest event on the para hockey schedule – the Paralympic Winter Games.

“My goal is to make it to Beijing 2022. I’m not going to let up until I get there.”

For more information:

Esther Madziya
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada

(403) 284-6484 

[email protected] 

Spencer Sharkey
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada

(403) 777-4567

[email protected]

Jeremy Knight
Manager, Corporate Communications
Hockey Canada

(647) 251-9738

[email protected]

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