Although he may not be a household name to many Canadians (yet), the hockey exploits of Canada’s National Sledge Team forward Tyler McGregor are definitely well-known in and around his hometown of Forest, Ont.
But McGregor’s story isn’t just about hockey. To everyone who has ever met the 20-year-old, he is a leader, a fighter, an inspirational figure, a symbol of courage and, most of all, a friend.
Growing up in Forest, McGregor’s childhood revolved around, what else – hockey.
“I started playing hockey at three years old,” he says. “My parents put me on skates and from there I just fell in love with the game.”
The older McGregor got, the better he got. In his Major Atom season, he befriended twin brothers from nearby Grand Bend, Ont. – Matt and Ryan Rupert, currently starring for the OHL’s London Knights.
“He’s a great person and a great friend,” Matt Rupert says of McGregor. “Growing up, Tyler, Ryan and me would always watch hockey games together, usually the Sarnia Sting. We used to dream of one day making it to the OHL together.”
While the dream has come true for the Ruperts, it ended for McGregor in January 2010, when one misfortune after another derailed a promising hockey career.
“It sort of progressed in small steps,” McGregor says. “At first I broke my leg and thought my season was over. Then I was diagnosed with cancer a few weeks later and I thought I’d be out of hockey for a year or two. And then a week later I was given the news that I was going to lose my leg. I thought I would never play hockey again.
“It broke my heart because I was at an age where I was doing really well and I was excited to see where my career in hockey would take me.”
As far as the Ruperts are concerned, they know where hockey would have taken McGregor – right beside them in an OHL line-up.
“I know that our Minor Midget year, his goal was to obviously get [to the OHL] and I know he would’ve been drafted pretty high,” says Ryan Rupert. “Unfortunately, it was pretty difficult because we know what happened. But he would’ve been in the OHL, no question.
“He was an offensive guy who could score goals. And in defensive situations he was an obvious choice with a minute left; he would block shots and make plays. He was one of those key guys that coaches loved on their team and he would do whatever they wanted.”
His life may have changed, but McGregor was still a Canadian teenager, and like so many others his age, it wasn’t long until his life once again revolved around hockey.
Just over a year after losing his leg, McGregor strapped into a sled and played sledge hockey for the first time, although he wasn’t sure about giving the sport a try.
“At the time I had no idea what sledge hockey was all about, but other people had mentioned it to me. At first I was hesitant to try it out but I eventually did and it continued to grow on me as I started to play.
“It was kind of a second chance for me to live my dream. When I found out that hockey was a Paralympic sport and that I could still play for Team Canada, that was a huge motivation for me and I immediately made it my goal to make the team.”
McGregor started out with the London Blizzard, the local sledge hockey club team, but the team practiced just once a week, and he knew he needed to be on the ice every opportunity he could get.
Whether it was public skating or free ice in his hometown, McGregor tried to get his sled out on the ice as much as possible.
“It was tough for me to progress because I could not practice four or five times a week,” he says. “I would sit in my basement, sit in my sled and handle a puck and just practice. I would work on little skills and I think that’s one of the reasons I progressed so fast.”
Less than a year after his first sledge hockey experience, McGregor earned a spot on Canada’s National Sledge Development Team, playing in a pair of three-game series against the United States in January and April 2012, and he made Canada’s National Sledge Team on his first try that fall.
McGregor’s fast-track through the sledge hockey ranks came as no surprise to those that knew him well.
“He’s such a strong-hearted person,” Matt Rupert says. “Our first year in AAA we didn’t really know what to expect but he not only had the drive to make it on the team as a rookie, he was also named captain of our team.”
“Tyler doesn’t seem like a loud talkative guy but behind the scenes he’s rowdy,” adds Ryan Rupert. “He likes to get everybody going. If somebody was going downhill he would bring them up and tell them they were doing well. He’s a great person to be around.”
Although McGregor wants to be treated like any other 20-year-old, he is well aware he is a source of inspiration to other young cancer survivors. His courage and fearlessness when facing adversity have not only motivated friends like the Ruperts, but anyone who knows his story.
“I tell people to never give up and to always follow their dreams,” McGregor says. “I never gave up. I did whatever I needed to do to achieve them. Now I’m living my dream and representing my country.”