The pandemic has created more than the usual anticipation for the Beijing 2022 Paralympics, which begin one year from now, for Para Ice hockey arch-rivals Canada and the USA.
“Honestly, I’m just craving, absolutely craving the opportunity to play them (the USA) again,” said Team Canada captain, Tyler McGregor.
The captain of Team USA, Josh Pauls is feeling something unusual too.
“I'm not going to lie. I don't think I'm ever going to be as excited to see Tyler McGregor as I'm going to be, whenever I get to shake his hand in the captain’s circle. Or maybe we have to do a fist bump or just wave to each other.”
Both teams have not been able to have their full squads together to practice or play a game since the pandemic hit. But the longing they have to face one another goes much deeper than this past year. In Para ice hockey Canada and the USA have one of the fiercest rivalries in all of sport. It is similar to the intense battle the two nations wage at the Olympics in women’s hockey.
The last seven Para ice hockey World Championships have gone to a team from North America and every Paralympic gold medal since 2002. The USA has often been on the winning side, something that does not sit well with McGregor.
GOING TO WAR
“I'm sure they're all great people, great human beings. But as soon as you step on the ice, we're going to war. You know, definitely when Canada and the US play, it does bring a different level of intensity.”
For his part, Josh Pauls said when the two nations go head-to-head, the hits are that much harder, the passes that much crisper, and the goals that much sweeter. On the ice, he said you can tell that the two teams do not get along.
At a test event in Vancouver for the 2010 Paralympics, there was a line brawl where all the players on the ice ended up fighting.
“We ran their goalie and I just remember guys flying in from the point. Helmets were getting pulled off, punches were thrown. It was pandemonium. I’m sitting on the bench – 16 years old – going, ‘man, what am I getting myself into’.”
Pauls added over the years that bitter hatred has simmered, now more like a healthy respect between the players on both teams. But there is still bad blood and trash talking from time to time.
McGregor admitted he used to be in the middle of all that as a young player.
“You definitely hear some trash talking. I'm certainly not scared to mix it up. I had some issues doing that maybe a little bit too much as a younger player. But I think it's definitely an element of both of our styles of play that we use to try to invoke or inject some energy into our teams.”
37 SECONDS TO GOLD
McGregor has replayed the moment from the last Paralympics maybe a billion times in his head.
At the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympics, Canada was leading 1-0 with only 37 seconds separating them from what has been an elusive Paralympic gold medal. That was when disaster struck for the Canadians and their neighbours to the south tied the game. The USA later scored in overtime to take the gold medal, leaving the Canadian players in shock as the USA players stormed onto the ice to celebrate.
“I think that's something that made it even more difficult is knowing that it was within our reach -- within a minute to accomplish something that many of us are have dreamed of our whole lives. It was honestly heartbreaking. It led to some of the more difficult, darker days of my adult life.”
McGregor said the team has used that heartbreak as motivation and tried to learn from what happened. First, that you have to focus on every detail, not take one shift off until the final whistle. Second, the team had to develop its culture and unity. If they learned how to love and care for one another, it would help them fight as one in those crucial moments.
“We’ve worked extensively with our mental performance coach individually and as a group, just in terms of being honest and vulnerable with each other and trying to connect on a deeper, more meaningful level than just being these big, tough hockey players.”
Of course, Pauls said the USA has been working just as hard to defend its title, and he admits beating Canada is a driving force.
“Those are the kinds of things that get me excited because of how seriously they take the game up there. Hockey has been Canada’s game for so long. We’re trying to make it so that sled hockey is our game in the US.”