Prince Harry, Justin Trudeau launch 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto

Prince Harry officially kicks off the countdown to the 2017 Invictus Games, recalling to an audience in Toronto how he was inspired to support the competition for wounded soldiers.

'These are role models that need to be celebrated,' royal says ahead of Games for wounded veterans

Prince Harry takes part in a ceremonial puck drop at a sledge hockey game at Ryerson University in Toronto on Monday. (CBC)

Prince Harry likes what he sees in Toronto ahead of the 2017 Invictus Games, saying next year's event will be the "biggest and best" yet.

"I can't wait to see how Canada embraces the Games, especially after today," Harry told a Toronto audience on Monday.

The fifth in line for the British throne is in the city along with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to launch the 2017 Invictus Games.

The Olympic-style sports event for wounded veterans takes place next September in Toronto and will feature more than 600 competitors from 16 nations.

Prince Harry joined Prime Minister Trudeau and Toronto Mayor John Tory for an exhibition sledge hockey game at Ryerson University's Mattamy Athletic Centre.

The sport will be part of the Invictus Games for the first time next year.

"It was a very easy decision once we handed the Games over to Canada," Prince Harry said of the addition of sledge hockey.

"This is Canada, everything happens on ice, doesn't it?" he joked before taking part in a ceremonial puck drop.

Inspired by a tour of duty

Earlier on Monday, the prince spoke to an audience of injured military personnel at the Royal York Hotel, explaining how he was inspired to get involved in the Invictus Games after seeing three young soldiers badly injured in Afghanistan while he was serving a tour of duty.

The pivotal moment happened in 2008. At the time, Harry was being sent home himself after the media had learned of his presence in Afghanistan as a British army officer. That news endangered his fellow officers, forcing him to leave, even though he wanted to stay with his soldiers.

While sitting aboard his flight home, Harry saw a coffin of a Danish solider loaded aboard. Also on that flight were three young British soldiers "on stretchers in induced comas" wrapped in plastic, "missing limbs with tubes coming out of them," he said.

That moment put the prince on the path to embracing the Invictus Games, the only international adaptive sporting event for wounded, injured and sick soldiers and veterans.

He would return to Afghanistan four years later as a helicopter pilot. Later, he saw wounded athletes competing at an event in Colorado. There, he saw the healing power of the competition.

"Seeing so many men and women competing against each other with huge beaming smiles made me realize how powerful this concept was," said Harry. "Sport is what made the difference. Sport could help these guys fix their lives and those around them."

Since Prince Harry's involvement at the first Invictus Games in London in 2014, they have continued to grow.

"We created a platform which helped to smash the stigma that existed around [veterans'] injuries, particularly for those missing limbs, who showed that they weren't afraid to talk about their experiences," said Prince Harry. "They showed us that despite huge adversity, the impossible was possible.

This year's Invictus Games take place next week in Orlando, Fla.

'We need each other,' says Canadian vet

Prior to the prince's speech, Jody Mitic, an Ottawa city councillor and former Canadian Forces sniper who lost his feet to a mine while serving in Afghanistan, thanked Harry for his support for the Games.

"As tough as we like to think we are … we need each other," said Mitic. "We need a team. Without my brothers and sisters, I wouldn't be here today."

About 30 members of Canada's Invictus Games team were on hand in Toronto for Monday's launch.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said the Games are a tribute to those injured or killed in conflict.

"We owe them an enormous debt and gratitude for those sacrifices," she said. "The Games are another opportunity to honour those sacrifices."


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