Canadian para ice hockey veterans want that golden feeling again
Remaining players from 2006 champs motivated to end drought
There was a time when para ice hockey players like Billy Bridges, Brad Bowden and Greg Westlake thought winning gold at the Paralympics was going to come easy. After all, the three of them won gold with Canada early in their careers at the 2006 Winter Games in Torino.
It was supposed to propel them forward into a home Paralympics. The thrill of defending gold in 2010 in Vancouver danced around in their heads.
Their dream scenario turned out to be a nightmare.
"That was the worst loss of my career. It was horrible," Bowden said about the semifinal loss to Japan.
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Never before had they lost to Japan until that game — in front of all of their friends and family to make it worse.
"It was such a beautiful moment being on home soil with my family there. Canada was behind us. The medal dream was beautiful.
"It was such a great time but I try to forget about it."
Bridges and Westlake have similar stories. Four years years later in Sochi, the team fell short of their golden dream again and finished with a bronze.
They've spent 12 years trying to get back to glory and now they finally have their chance. The three veterans alongside the rest of Team Canada defeated South Korea 7-0 on Thursday afternoon in Pyeongchang, securing a spot in that elusive gold medal game.
"We're just so happy that we're following the script the way it was supposed to go," Bridges said after the win. "The Paralympics are such a special thing. But the pressure of it all can change the complexion of everything."
Bridges finished the semifinal with two goals and an assist at his fifth Paralympics. He says there's something magical happening with this team.
"Every line can get it done. Every player can get it done. Everyone is being a leader. It's so awesome to see."
Remembering what it's like
Bridges likes to share a story about how he was feeling before his first gold medal game in 2006. He was nervous, "scared" of the game as he describes it.
"I was on the phone with my dad before the gold medal game against Norway. We had lost to them in the prelims and I just couldn't wrap my head around it and beating them," he said.
That's when the voice at the other end chimed in and said words Bridges will never forget and will carry with him into this gold medal game.
"My dad didn't say much, he just said 'you know Bill, you won the semifinal game and for the rest of your life you're going to be a Paralympic medallist for Canada and no one can ever take that away from you.'"
It was as if in that moment all the weight of the world was lifted off of Bridges' shoulders. The team went out and captured gold. Bridges wants to experience those feelings again.
"We've planned for this game for eight years against the USA. We've wanted this chance to play them in the gold medal game."
Inspired by other Paralympians
Westlake, the team's current captain, started his career by winning that gold medal in 2006. Now he's leading the team back into the gold medal game all these years later.
"You get older and you realize how few and far between the opportunities are. Just being in the gold medal and having the chance to compete in it is awesome," Westlake said.
But make no mistake, while Westlake is just happy to be back, he wants to win badly and the competitive juices are already flowing in advance of Sunday's final.
"I want to be nervous. I want to be so nervous I'm going to feel like I'll throw up and then I'll go out there and give a performance."
Westlake has a different perspective about all of this now. For the first time since he started competing at the Games, all of the Paralympian are all in one Village. Spending time with the other competitors and hearing their stories of perseverance is firing Westlake up.
"Right now I'm very inspired. I'm inspired by our curling team. I'm inspired by other Paralympians."
It's been a long road back but they've arrived at their golden destination. Westlake says they couldn't have done it without the backing of family and friends throughout the years.
"The best thank you we can give people who supported us is to go leave it all out there."