Moose Jaw Warriors scout Justin Rayner on life after hockey

Justin Rayner, a scout for the WHL's Moose Jaw Warriors, chatted with CBC Radio's Saskatchewan Weekend about hockey, life and perseverance in the face of adversity.

Rayner broke two vertebrae at age 13 and has been in a wheelchair since

Rayner told Saskatchewan Weekend he grew up surrounded by hockey, loving it since before he could even remember. (Supplied by Justin Rayner)

Justin Rayner can still recall the last moments before he broke two vertebrae in his neck.

He was only 13. It was his first year of bantam and his team was in Hodgeville, Sask. It was the middle of the second period and the game was tied at one goal a piece.

He was taking his regular shift when he chipped the puck off the board, down the ice and went in on a breakaway. As he was taking a shot, he lost his balance and flew head-first into the boards, breaking his C4 and C5 vertebrae. 

"I knew something was going to be hurting as soon as I fell. I just figured I would be winded," Rayner said.

"As soon as I opened my eyes, I could tell something serious had happened."

Rayner said he spent five months in Regina General Hospital and another 16 at the Wascana Rehabilitation Centre after he fractured two vertebrae in his neck during a hockey game. (Supplied by Justin Rayner)

Rayner said the feeling was indescribable, out-of-body.

"It felt like I was looking at someone else's body in front of me," he said, adding it felt like his limbs had shrunk beneath his head.

Rayner spent approximately five months in Regina General Hospital, then another 16 months in a rehabilitation facility in the city. He has been having rehab sessions ever since, 13 years after the incident.

Rayner said the doctors told him his hockey dream was over. For someone who said he grew up surrounded by hockey, loving the game since before he could remember, the news was devastating. 

"I've had a stick and a puck pretty much everywhere I went my whole life."

A new path

For a few years, Rayner couldn't even go to a rink, too jealous to watch people play the game he loved.

"I wanted to be out there skating with them."

But the passion came back with support from the hockey community, "re-igniting the passion," he said.

Roughly six or seven years ago, Rayner started scouting. It started from holding mock drafts with a group of friends, predicting where prospects would be taken in the NHL Entry Draft. It's something he said he always took a little more serious than the others.
Rayner said he started scouting approximately seven years ago and would compare his mock draft and scouting reports to that of NHL scouts. (Submitted by Justin Rayner)

"I just liked trying to see how my scouting reports stacked up to what actual scouts were saying."

What drew Rayner to scouting was the technical aspect of the game and noticing the things most others might not, such as the way players think throughout the game, what they do away from the puck and their anticipation of the upcoming play. 

"I just love the idea of scouting being able to change a franchise around, based on how well you predict the players turning out."

The jealousy still lingers and he thinks it might always be there but scouting has Rayner's attention now, for the most part, as he was hired as a scout for the WHL's Moose Jaw Warriors in 2016.

Hometown Hockey

The Rogers Hometown Hockey Tour rolls into Moose Jaw this weekend. 

Rayner plans to take in the festivities and meet former NHL tough guy, Dave 'Tiger' Williams. Former Broad Street Bully, Dave 'The Hammer' Schultz and Tim Hunter will also be there. The three men have racked up more than a combined 9400 penalty minutes in the NHL. 

Rayner doesn't know what he would say to Williams, saying the experience would be intimidating, "probably 'hi.'"

The festival will take place all weekend and is free admission.

There will be various activities and an outdoor viewing party for the game between the Edmonton Oilers and the Ottawa Senators. 

With files from CBC Radio's Saskatchewan Weekend