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