Canadian Para hockey captain McGregor grows from heartbreaking end to 2018 Games

It was a loss that broke Tyler McGregor’s heart, one that weighed on him for many terrible months after Canada let the gold medal in Para ice hockey slip away in the final seconds of a championship tilt against Team USA at the 2018 Paralympics in Pyeongchang.

1 of 9 returning members of 2018 team looking to avenge loss to U.S. in gold-medal game

Tyler McGregor of Canada, centre, celebrates after deafeating Korea during the 2018 Paralympic Games. McGregor, captain of Canada's 2022 team in Beijing, will be looking to win gold after Canada lost to the United States in the gold medal game in 2018. (Martin Rose/Getty Images)

It was a loss that broke Tyler McGregor's heart, one that weighed on him for many terrible months after Canada let the gold medal in Para ice hockey slip away in the final seconds of a championship tilt against Team USA at the 2018 Paralympics in Pyeongchang.

At the time, all he could do was watch it happen. McGregor, one of Canada's top forwards, sat in the left corner of the Canadian zone after charging back at full speed to help defend a USA breakaway in a game Canada led 1-0 with less than a minute left in regulation.

The breakaway followed a shot from Canadian defenceman Rob Armstrong that rang off the post of an empty net and likely would have ensured victory. Team USA charged back and buried the tying goal with 37.8 seconds left, then won 2-1 in overtime.

To have come so close, and to lose in such dramatic fashion, left several Canadian players dejected and in tears. It wreaked havoc with McGregor's mental health, and it was enough to make him question nearly everything about his life as an elite athlete.

Canada's players react after receiving their silver medals from losing to the United States in the gold medal match for the 2018 Winter Paralympics. Tyler McGregor, left, will be looking to use this loss as motivation in Beijing. (Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press)

"It was a very empty feeling for myself and for our entire team," said McGregor, 27, officially named captain of Team Canada on Thursday, and vying for gold again at the 2022 Paralympics in Beijing.

"It's something that took a long time to move past."

The next season, it was difficult to get up and train, or go to the rink, he said. McGregor battled self-doubt as a hockey player, and in his personal life. But as grief from that loss dissipated, he turned a corner and saw that winning another medal in Beijing was not only possible but likely.

"I really spent the time to look internally and try to iron out some shortcomings in myself," said McGregor, a 5-foot-9 forward from Forest, Ont.

"One benefit in leaving the last Games was that I really became a more well-rounded human and athlete. I would say that's kind of been a contributing factor to the success of the past couple of years."

On a personal level, McGregor has stepped into rare company in Canadian hockey circles. He's secured sponsorship agreements with blue-chip brands like Gatorade, Canadian Tire and Panasonic.

In a high-profile video ad leading up to the Beijing Games, he shares the screen with Canadian Olympic women's hockey captain Marie Philip Poulin, who just led the women's Olympic gold-medal win over the U.S. in Beijing, and former men's captain Sidney Crosby.

By the standards of the sport, he is a star — and, in Para ice hockey circles, a household name. But as a team, Canada is equally confident, ambitious and composed as they prepare for Beijing.

McGregor and Liam Hickey, a speedy defenceman from St. John's, N.L., anchor a group of about nine veterans who are expected to survive an overhaul of the roster from Pyeongchang.

"I don't take it lightly that I have a leadership role on the team," said Hickey, 23, a two-sport athlete who also played with Canada's wheelchair basketball team at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio.

"And the cool thing about our team is that we have 20 guys that can lead a team. So, it's pretty exciting. It's an awesome group to be around."

WATCH | Liam Hickey lights the lamp:

Canada's Hickey scores beauty short-handed goal in win over South Korea

4 years ago
Duration 1:05
Liam Hickey helps Canada beat South Korea 4-0 at the world para hockey championship.

Though some of Canada's roster turnover stems from retirements, head coach Ken Babey was also deliberate about bringing in new faces to shore up weaknesses.

"I think we have the right mix of experience, speed, skill, and good young players with a lot of energy," said Babey. "It was a conscious decision on our part to try some new things."

Hockey Canada also brought in a mental performance coach to help the team become tougher and more resilient in high-pressure situations. And despite the challenges of training during a pandemic, the team appears cohesive and upbeat heading into the Games.

"We feel we're in a good place in terms of our mental preparation," said Babey. "But anything can happen. You have to be prepared for anything."

Liam Hickey of Canada, left, celebrates after scoring during the 2018 Winter Paralympics. Just 23 years old, Hickey already will be relied on as a leader for the 2022 Canadian team with just nine returning members from the 2018 team. (Lee Jin-man/The Associated Press)

For McGregor, Hickey and other veterans who remember the sting of that late goal at PyeongChang, the focus is on ensuring such mistakes never happen again.

They're prime contenders for gold in Beijing, along with Team USA and the team representing the Russian Olympic Committee.

"I would say early on in the quad, I was thinking far too much about that gold medal loss," said McGregor. "And now it's more so just about the present moment."

Tyler McGregor celebrates a goal against Sweden at the 2018 Paralympic Games. McGregor will be donning the 'C' on his jersey in Beijing. (Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

"We've made the best of an unfortunate situation," he added. "And I think because of that, we're well prepared mentally, going into Beijing."

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