Four years ago, Canada’s Tyler McGregor came away from his first World Championships with a gold-medal victory on South Korean ice.
The forward from Forest, Ontario, who lost his leg to cancer in 2009, was just 19 at the time.
Now, 23 and heading back to South Korea for the 2017 World Para Ice Hockey Championships A-Pool in Gangneung, McGregor is an alternate captain and one of the go-to players for the team.
In fact, coming off a first-place finish at the 2017 International Para Ice Hockey Tournament in Torino, where McGregor led all skaters with 14 points (six goals, eight assists), he is arguably entering the event as one of the best players in the world.
And there are germane reasons that have contributed to that.
“I can honestly say this is the most fun I’ve had playing with this group of guys, and it’s the closest we’ve ever felt as a team,” McGregor said. “I think that’s so important heading into a major World Championships like this.”
Following what many Canadian players deemed a “disappointing” bronze in Sochi, the programme overhauled portions of its roster and brought in an entire new coaching staff. Canada has altered its focus to become a team that emphasises puck possession, team chemistry and speed. Coaches have made a point to ensure players are together as a national team unit more than just once or twice per year.
“We’ve really put an emphasis on becoming a year-round team, and not just from September to April,” McGregor said. “After Sochi, there was a little bit of a culture shock, and that took some adjusting to, but right now is when we’re starting to see the payoff, and that’s extremely exciting.”
Since the introduction of the World Championships in 1996, Canada has medalled in seven of eight appearances, including gold-medal wins in 2000, 2008 and 2013. Last time out, Canada came away with silver from the 2015 tournament in Buffalo, New York, USA.
Canada’s World Championship squad this year will feature 10 players who were part of that Sochi 2014 Paralympic team, balanced out by five players making their World Championship debuts.
From reserved veterans Greg Westlake and Brad Bowden to energetic newcomers Liam Hickey and Dominic Cozzolino, the roster is a true mashup, with the youngsters proving themselves early.
“They’ve come in and made an immediate impact, which is important for us. Mixing them with the veterans we’ve had around for a while makes for a really great group of guys right now,” McGregor said.
“We’ve gelled amazingly. Our younger guys have bought in right away and work incredibly hard. They’re fast and they’re skilled. While we do have quite a bit of an age gap between our youngest and oldest players, the biggest thing is that we all feel like we’re an important part of the team and everybody knows their role.”
Germany, Italy, South Korea, Norway and Sweden will also be competing in Gangneung from 11-20 April, but it will be the defending Paralympic and world champions USA whom Canada will be most anxious to play on April 17.
“It’s a fun rivalry. Those are the games we get most excited for,” McGregor said. “Obviously there’s a lot of history there, and that rivalry has continued to build as I’ve progressed throughout my career. It almost gets more exciting as I’ve moved on. But, we obviously have some unfinished business because they’ve had our number lately.”
The last time they faced the USA, Canada allowed five second-period goals, including three in a two-minute span, while losing 5-2 in the gold-medal game of December’s World Sledge Hockey Challenge.
In addition to puck possession being a major priority, McGregor said the Canadians will need to match the Americans’ speed in order to pull out a win, or even better yet, dictate the pace of the game themselves.
The 2017 World Para Ice Hockey Championships A-Pool will take place from 11-20 April and will also serve as the Test Event and qualifier for the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games.
Live coverage of the World Championships will be available at Gangneung2017.com.