Para hockey veteran Greg Westlake is retiring after Beijing 2022 after 19 years of representing his country, but his passion and advocacy for the sport will live on
With an intensive training schedule and the sole focus of achieving their goal of winning a gold medal, the small moments experienced by athletes on their road to the Paralympic Games can easily become confused.
But for Greg Westlake, who is taking part in his fifth Paralympic Winter Games, he takes the opportunity to immerse himself in every moment. That’s because the 19-year-old veteran of Canada’s National Para Hockey Team has announced he will be retiring at the end of Beijing 2022.
“I’m really happy that I stepped up and said this would be my last,” Westlake said. “It kind of freed me up and allowed me to really enjoy all the little things.”
The realization that he was nearing the end of his career really came crashing down days before Canada’s Paralympic Hockey Team left for Beijing. After the team’s last practice in Calgary, the gravity of the moment hit the 35-year-old as he was in the locker room.
“It was my last ice time in Canada,” he said. “Practice ended and I was just sitting there like, ‘I don’t know when I’m going to play hockey again in Canada.'”
Beijing 2022 salutes an accomplished career with Team Canada. Westlake joined the para hockey program in 2003 and has played as a goaltender, defenseman and forward. He won gold at his first Paralympic Games in 2006 and has since won two more Paralympic medals: bronze in 2014 and silver in 2018.
At the start of the 2010–11 season, Westlake was named captain and served in that role for eight years. In IPC Para Hockey World Championship action, he won three gold medals (2008, 2013, 2017), two silver (2015, 2019) and two bronze (2009, 2012 ).
In addition to these accolades, Westlake was honored to lead Team Canada to the Beijing 2022 Opening Ceremony as one of the country’s flag bearers. His eyes are on gold in his final competition, but he also hopes to experience the Games from the perspective of his younger teammates.
“I kind of want to experience the Games through the eyes of other people, you know, guys who are going to an Opening Ceremony for the first time,” he says. “I think, for me, it’s really fun and exciting. To see a 19, 20 year old kid just like, ‘Greg, aren’t you excited about the opening ceremonies?’ You see this excitement; it rejuvenates you. It makes you feel like it’s your first time and it really turns me on.
As a member of the national team for nearly two decades, the native of Oakville, Ont., had the opportunity to team up with many Para hockey players. As the team evolved, his leadership style also evolved to better serve his teammates. Looking back, Westlake says he was a loud and energetic guy when he first joined the team, but now has a calmer approach. He prefers conversations over coffee or being a source of advice.
“Every team is different,” he says. “They’re going to have a new dynamic, new wants and needs and the things it takes for this team to be successful. You have to be a bit of a chameleon, you have to be able to blend in where you’re needed most and play that role to the best of your ability. I do my best to do so.
For young players, like Branden Sison and Anton Jacobs-Webb, who looked up to Westlake as a role model, the chance to be teammates with him is an exciting opportunity.
“To be honest, it’s pretty surreal,” says Sison, who was inspired by watching Westlake on TV at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Games. “You never really think you’ll see a guy on TV and then get a chance to play with him on a line or as a D-couple or whatever. But he’s a really, really amazing player.
As a teenager, Jacobs-Webb met Westlake at the Cruisers Cup in Brampton, Ontario. After playing his games in the Junior Division, he watched Westlake compete in the Elite Division and stayed after the game to have him sign a pair of gloves and take a picture together.
“It was kind of a big moment. I was pretty nervous,” Jacobs-Webb says. “My parents were like, ‘Yeah, go talk to him’ when I didn’t really want to. But I’m really glad I went to talk to him at the end.
“He was a shy kid,” Westlake says of Jacobs-Webb. “What I enjoyed meeting him was that he was a fan of the sport, like he knew who I was.”
The teammates have come a long way since then, but the impact Westlake had on Jacobs-Webb when he dreamed of wearing the Maple Leaf as a child remains to this day.
“Of course we’re teammates, we’ve been playing together for four years, but there’s still a little bit left [of me that] can’t get over it. It’s still Greg. I watched pretty much all of his YouTube videos,” says Jacobs-Webb. “He has a big name and it’s crazy to play with him.”
On the ice, Westlake is known for his competitive spirit and the way he grinds and fights for pucks. His ability to adapt over the years also stands out from his teammates.
“I compare him to LeBron James; he knows the sport well and he changes his game over the years to adapt to the new style of play that we have,” explains Sison. “It’s a very fast style of hockey these days. He was able to follow that over the years and change his style of play. Also going from defense to attack, he is a very versatile player.
A unique aspect of Canada’s Paralympic hockey team is the mix of veterans and rookies – Sison and Jacobs-Webb are among seven players making their Paralympic debuts in Beijing. With a veteran like Westlake closing the book on his para-hockey career, it symbolizes the passing of the torch to the next generation.
“I don’t want to say goodbye to them right away because they are precious for us and for the team. But the next generation is coming, and we seem pretty strong,” Sison says. “I think they will be very proud of the direction that [Canada’s National Para Hockey Team] going. I think they are leaving it in good hands and will be happy with the results we are going to bring in the future.
“I think this is a great opportunity for us,” added Jacobs-Webb. “We get a bit of mentorship, we follow their leadership and we learn a lot from them. When they’re gone, I think we’ll be pretty well prepared. We have a good core.
As for Westlake, he has already witnessed a lot of progress in the sport since he started playing. A positive change over the past two decades is the increase in the number of athletes who can fully support themselves by playing para hockey.
“The biggest difference I see is that more and more guys have the ability to earn a living as an athlete representing their country and train full time. It was something that in the past , just didn’t exist,” he says. “When we can get to the point where every guy on the team is what they do, that will be great.”
Another goal for Westlake is for para hockey to gain visibility and attract more fans to keep the sport moving forward.
“I can only speak from my experience; I can’t speak for everyone. But as a kid growing up with two artificial legs, I never saw anyone who looked like me on TV. I’ve never seen anyone in a big role in hockey look like me,” Westlake said. “It was hard for me to have these goals, these ambitions and these dreams in hockey because I just didn’t think it was possible.
“When you look 10 to 15 years from now, I see more games on TV for us, not just one a year. I see a lot more advocacy, just more representation.
Right now, Westlake is focused on ending his career on a golden note in Beijing. Once the Paralympic Games are over and his playing career is over, he hopes to stay involved in the hockey world.
“I don’t know exactly what it is yet, but I love player development. I love scouting. I love the management side,” he says. “As far as this program is concerned, anything, anytime. It’s a yes for me all day.
His days of wearing the maple leaf on his jersey may be over, but his Para hockey legacy and passion for the sport will live on.
“I love the game. I love the team. It’s been my favorite thing since I was three and it moves me to talk about it,” he says. “I hope people know that back when it wasn’t the biggest sport in the world, I was trying to do my best to promote it and trying to leave it in a better place than I found it.
“I just have a lot of love for the program. And I hope people know that.