Rob Armstrong of Canada is quietly confident the days of near misses are behind Canada as he eyes up a blockbuster start to the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games Para ice hockey tournament, which gets underway on Saturday (5 March).
The forward is itching to show the world just what has changed when Canada open up against USA, the team who has denied them gold at the past two World Championships and, in personally agonising circumstances, at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Paralympics.
"It’s the work in the dark, the stuff people don’t see, that’s not published on social media," Armstrong said when asked how they might climb out of a rut that goes back to the Gangneung 2017 World Championships A-Pool.
NO ROOM FOR QUITTING
The 25-year-old knows better than most just how painful these close calls can be. Four years ago, with his team 1-0 up in the Paralympic final with less than a minute left on the clock and facing a team who had pulled goaltender Steve Cash, Armstrong took control of the puck.
The shot towards an empty net was one he would make "99 times out of 100". But this time he hit the post, allowing USA star Declan Farmer to first score the equalizer with 37 seconds of regulation time left, before then finding the golden goal in overtime.
"At the time it was difficult to even put into words. There were so many emotions, even months after," Armstrong said. "There was a time where [I questioned] how do you mentally move past that.
"It would have been easy to quit, have a silver medal and call it there."
That, however, is not the way of this Canadian team.
"The biggest part that helped me through is I felt, ‘How did I screw up so bad, I really screwed up for everyone’ but my teammates and support staff and family, they were there the whole time and made me feel so comfortable and helped me get over it.
"That is why I am here."
BETTER THAN IN 2018
Sports psychologist Kyle McDonald has played a key part in helping Canada change the narrative. Armstrong learned to journal, map out a routine and open himself up emotionally. It has been a journey of self-discovery the whole squad has bought into.
"It’s really a great and safe place, this team environment," Armstrong said. "A guy like Tyler [McGregor, team captain] is so open and honest that it really helps push the narrative to ‘we aren’t that team that we were in 2018, we are going to be better than that’."
The signs are promising. Canada faced the USA in two exhibition games in St. Louis in October 2021 and while they lost one, they crucially won the other.
"I wouldn’t say hatred, that is a pretty strong word, but these games against the US, it’s great for the sport," Armstrong said ahead of the opening Group A game. "It’s super competitive, the hits are usually a little bit bigger, every shot means a little bit more against the US."
GROWING THE GAME
The two teams are undoubted favourites in Beijing. But Armstrong is not getting ahead of himself.
"[South] Korea and Czech [Republic] are going to be similar, big bodies, they are quick guys," he said. "You have got to respect them and try and get shots on them, that’s what our gameplan will be."
The Koreans are in Group A with the USA and Canada, while the Czechs are part of Group B alongside Italy, Slovakia and hosts China. The teams will play each other within their respective groups.
The three highest-ranked teams from the world rankings comprise Group A, while the remaining four make up Group B. At the end of the preliminary round, the top two teams from Group A progress to the semifinals and the bottom team in Group B is the only team out of the tournament after the preliminary round.
With Slovakia and China - the only team to name a female player, Yu Jing, on their roster - are both competing for the first time, every game in the now seven-team tournament will carry interest.
"We will be keeping glued to the TVs here, for sure," Armstrong said. "It’s going to be great for the game. It’s all about growing the game in both genders."
Here is a look at the full Para ice hockey competition schedule.
Saturday, 5 March
13:05: USA vs. CAN
16: 35: CZE vs. ITA
20:05: SVK vs. CHN
Sunday, 6 March
13:05: KOR vs. USA
16: 35: ITA vs. SVK
20:05: CHN vs. CZE
Tuesday, 8 March
13:05: CAN vs. KOR
16: 35: ITA vs. CHN
20:05: CZE vs. SVK
Wednesday, 9 March
16:35: Qualifying final 1 (A3 vs. B3)
20:05: Qualifying final 2 (B1 vs. B2)
Friday, 11 March
12:05: Semifinal 1 (A2 vs. W10)
16:05: Playoffs 5th-6th
20:05: Semifinal 2 (A1 vs. W11)
Saturday, 12 March
20:05: Bronze-medal game
Sunday, 13 March
12:05: Gold-medal game