Greg Westlake: Bloody victories

Greg Westlake: Bloody victories


If you get in his way, be prepared to pay the price. Canada’s sledge hockey captain will do whatever it takes to win.

By Malcolm Kelly for CBC Sports
August 22, 2014
Greg Westlake has had plenty to celebrate in his sledge hockey career. (Photo courtesy Greg Westlake) Greg Westlake has had plenty to celebrate in his sledge hockey career. (Photo courtesy Greg Westlake)

Greg Westlake, off the ice, is a personable, outgoing 28-year-old, who happens to own Paralympic gold and bronze medals.

Greg Westlake, on the ice, is a pain in the butt. An agitator. A loudmouth. An annoying piece of work who gets under the skin of opponents to the point they'll pop him in the head, take a penalty, and then have to listen to him laughing as they head for the box.

He captains the Canadian sledge hockey team, works with youth around the country, raises money for charitable causes and toils tirelessly to increase the profile of his sport among both the general public and corporations with money to spend.

He's a great guy to chat with over a beer and everything you'd want in a buddy.

 

There are people in the sledge world who hate him. Others who love him. And he doesn't seem to care.

You can stick him with the little pick on the end of the cut-down stick that sledge hockey players use to propel themselves, and he'll just pick you right back.

Assuming he didn't pick you first.

 
Greg Westlake talks about what led to a fight in a game between heated rivals Canada and the U.S.

He lives for the chance to have a fight like the stand up players do – gloves and helmets off, two guys pounding on each other in an even match (hasn’t happened yet) – and abhors the pushing and shoving of scrums after the whistle because it’s a waste of time and effort.

He’s everything, in other words, Don Cherry would want in a hockey player. Especially these days as he moves from the agitator of his youth to an agitator who can stickhandle and score with the best in the world.

I will do anything to win

And he knows he’s has the Jekyl-Hyde thing going on.

“But I don’t mind that,” he says. “[In a game] that’s two and a half hours to be who you have to be, to win a hockey game. I will do anything. I don’t care. I will do anything to win.”

 
Greg Westlake makes an appearance on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight.

Know where to draw the line

When Greg Westlake was six years old, he stared into a camera on behalf of the War Amps/CHAMPS program and said: “Whatever game you play, play safe.”

Nine years later, he ignored his own advice and took up sledge hockey, one of the toughest, most physically demanding games on the Paralympic agenda.

Andy Yohe (YO-EE), just retired as captain of the two-time Paralympic gold medallist U.S. sledge team, points out that sitting as they do in a sledge, balanced on twin blades underneath and propelling along with the picks, there is no help at all from the lower body.

Training is intense, and because players bring different disabilities with them, it has to be individualized to a certain extent.

“If guys are utilizing prosthetic limbs, they can stand up and do exercises,” Yohe said. ‘Where people with paralysis, or issues with the spine, it may be hard for them to do. They may not be able to do it the same way.”

Greg Westlake is known for being an agitator on the ice, knocking down all obstacles in his way. (Photo courtesy Greg Westlake ) Greg Westlake is known for being an agitator on the ice, knocking down all obstacles in his way. (Photo courtesy Greg Westlake )
 

Training is intense, and because players bring different disabilities with them, it has to be individualized to a certain extent.

“If guys are utilizing prosthetic limbs, they can stand up and do exercises,” Yohe said. ‘Where people with paralysis, or issues with the spine, it may be hard for them to do. They may not be able to do it the same way.”

'When I pick, you bleed'

Greg Westlake shows off his scars after getting spiked by the picks at the bottom of the sledge hockey sticks. (Photo courtesy Greg Westlake) Greg Westlake shows off his scars after getting spiked by the picks at the bottom of the sledge hockey sticks. (Photo courtesy Greg Westlake)
 

So the U.S. and Canadian teams work with trainers who can tweak the workouts while ensuring everyone gets to the level needed to be a world class athlete.

“All of us have to have the same attitude,” Yohe says. “Go out every single game, have total disregard for your body. If you can’t bring that every game, you won’t play at an international level.”

Greg Westlake tells CBC Sports how he started and fell in love with sledge hockey. And what it means to represent Canada.

Westlake likes to show off photos of his body after a particularly tough game where the picks on the end of the sticks have been flying. Those photos catch your attention.

“In sledge hockey, there is a lot I think that you can push the limits on,” says 14-year Team Canada veteran Graeme Murray, from his home in Barrie, Ont. “There’s a lot of bumping and grinding in your sled, and a lot that happens in the corner and along the boards.

“A lot of guys like to see what we can get away with.”

How do you pick somebody?

“Ideally, when the ref’s not looking,” says Westlake, and he laughs. “Probably exactly the way you think you would. You just stab him.

“It sounds so barbaric, but it’s not. You can’t cut somebody too bad. You aren’t going to kill somebody with a little shot to the rib cage.”

 
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Yohe, who insists he’s never picked somebody on purpose, says the pick “is especially nasty. There’s just no way around it. It’s definitely a weapon and people who are really good at the sport know how to use those as weapons.

“It’s a dangerous thing using those picks. It’s a concern everybody has, but it’s just part of the game.”

You can wear padding, but as Yohe points out,  “there’s still open spots. Even if you move a certain way that padding is going to shift and expose some of your stomach or back.”

Ladies and gentleman, in one corner (and that’s the way he looks at it), we have Greg Westlake, Canada’s captain and the world’s top agitator.

In the other, is the legendary Rolf Pedersen, Norway’s best player and a man who was competing in Paralympic events back when Westlake was six years old.

This is sledge hockey’s biggest rivalry.

They despise each other.

“We played them in the gold medal game in Torino (Paralympic) and my job was to get under his skin,” Westlake says, “so that’s all I did.

“Now, it’s escalated to the point where we’ve fought a few times and where he’s fish hooked my mouth.”

Fishhooking involves placing your finger in the mouth of an opponent and purposely dragging the nail through to cause blood. Westlake says that’s what Pedersen did.

Graeme Murray, one of the longest serving members of the Canadian team, sees it as a question of clashing eras. In the previous era, the teams were less aggressive and physical, more skill oriented and perhaps a little friendlier on the ice.

“[Pedersen] can really be quite friendly,” says Murray. “It’s just he and Greg do not get along.

“Pedersen is from a different era of sledge hockey, before Greg came in the program.  After Hockey Canada took over we kind of turned it into more of a Canadian hockey team [aggressive, hard hitting, highly skilled].

“You have to be closer to sledge hockey to really understand that comparison.”

What makes the Norwegian special, Murray says, is that he “was such a great hockey player he was able to be competitive in an evolving sport as the competition increased, so did he increase his skills.”

But Westlake and Pedersen couldn’t get along off the ice or on the ice, to the point where a couple of times the Norwegian challenged the Canadian in the hallway.

 

Andy Yohe, recently retired captain of the three-time Paralympic gold medalist U.S. team, is a neutral observer who likes both men.

“It makes it fun to watch when Norway plays Canada – you know they are going to put on a show at some point in the game, because those two are talking all the time – none of it is nice.”

Every game I try to get under someone’s skin.

Both, he says, are emotional guys.

As for the Canadian captain, he sees the rivalry in UFC terms.

“If there’s a sledge hockey UFC pay-per-view next week,” Westlake says, “[Pedersen] and I would be the main event and I’d win.”

Attempts to reach Pedersen were unsuccessful.

 

Yohe has, by the way, been picked in the neck. Thus the neck guards everyone wears.

Prior to the Sochi Paralympics, Greg Westlake’s sponsor Proctor & Gamble did a series of inspirational videos about athletes and their moms. Greg and Deb talk about their unique journey together.

Westlake says he never teaches picking to the young players he coaches and advises. But it’s a fact of life in big-time adult sledge.

I haven’t met a girlfriend’s parents who didn’t like me.

As with standup hockey, however, there is a definite line you may not cross, and in the para sport that’s using the sledge itself as an aggressive weapon. You must not come in sledge high – with the front of the sledge, where the legs (if you have them) are strapped in, arriving like a torpedo.

“It’s a matter of respect,” says Murray. “As competitive as sledge hockey is, there’s a lot of respect for our teammates because we know we’re playing against the other country’s best and their players train as hard as we do.

“Each team goes home at the end of the day and trains to beat the best team, and we train the same way [hard]. We’re not going to go out there and intentionally try to injure someone and hitting with the front of the sled is quite dangerous.”

Taking a dumb penalty in sledge hockey is as stupid as in standup hockey.

Westlake has had his ribs broken, and he says he accidently did the same to a Norwegian player at Sochi. And apologized.

How do you get the measure of a man with two distinct parts?

Westlake is deeply proud of the work he’s done for his sponsors (Samsung, Proctor & Gamble), with War Amps, an organization that has supported him all his life and that he stays close to, and with the Matt Cook Foundation, set up in memory of his national team roommate who died of cancer in early 2010.

He’s also proud of the way the Canadian team has helped take sledge from a relatively soft game to a more hockey-like physical and high-skill level.

Greg Westlake, as a child, tells Canadians to play safe in this archive video of a War Amps PSA.

It’s odd, in a way, that you find yourself sitting with a Paralympian – someone who people tend to think of as sweet and kind and on an endless “journey” because of what they have endured to become such athletes, while realizing this is a guy who will do anything necessary to win.

Westlake doesn’t see those too things as clashing in any way.

“I’m educated. I speak well. I haven’t met a girlfriend’s parents that didn’t like me,” he says. “Jarome Iginla would be an example of a very articulate, polite guy that everybody says is a model citizen, and he’s a pretty aggressive guy [on the ice].”

 
 

Perception, he says, is everything. And on the ice he wants to be seen as one thing – a hockey player. Like everyone else.

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