Player's Own Voice

POV podcast transcript: Greg Westlake

Paralympian hockey star Greg Westlake can't wait for the puck to drop in Beijing.

Player's Own Voice podcast Feb 16th 2022

Greg Westlake on Player's Own Voice Transcript

Feb 16 2022

Anastasia:  Back in 2014, toward the end of the Sochi winter Olympics, Greg Westlake heard hockey commentators saying  "Canadian Men won gold, Canadian Women won gold… Canadian para Hockey? It's Your turn." Those words stopped the Iron man cold, mid celebration.  Westlake and his team mates looked at one another and knew, the day was upon them. You don't need reasons to watch the Beijing Winter Paralympics, but Greg Westlake is gonna give em to you anyway.

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My friend, you have been with the national team since 2003. What does that make you feel when you hear that? 

Greg Westlake:    Well, it makes me feel old, first of all. But no, you know what changes? I think now it makes me feel proud. For the longest time was like, OK I've been around a long time. I've played a lot of games, but I think one thing that's been really fun is because I'm a part of kind of a growing sport and something that's just kind of getting, you know, bigger, faster, stronger every year like we seem to do in the in the sporting world. It's a point of pride now to say I've been on the team so long because, you know, the guys are so good now that are coming in are  great athletes. So I actually take a lot of pride in it and I love the programme. I hope it shows some dedication to because I just like, I'm that kid that drank the Kool-Aid. I just love Canadian hockey, like, I want to see us win as many gold medals as possible. And you know, I want to be a part of as many as well. So, you know, it's been a lot of fun.

Anastasia:  That's nice. That's nice to hear. Like just the smile in your voice. What progress have you seen within that time? Because I'm guessing that the makeup and the programme and whatnot is quite a bit different than 20 years ago.

Greg Westlake:    Yeah. You know what? It's such a loaded question, honestly. But you know, looking back on it now and you would know from kind of the Olympic sporting world and say, I really break it down into quads, right? Every four years, like each Olympic Games,so when I do it that way and I go from Torino to Vancouver to Sochi to Korea, you start seeing all the changes. And I think the main change that I see is just the resources and the funding and, you know, the commitment to winning gold medals within our sport. And when I first came in and was playing for Team Canada, it really had the feel of a bit of a club team. Like we felt like a rep hockey team, but I don't know if we felt like a Canadian national team. And then kind of every year as we got more and more integrated into the, you know, they call it the Programme of Excellence with Hockey Canada as we got more and more integrated with that and just got more resources and better equipment and better, you know, everything from diet to camp, everything just got better and better. And you see it in the athletes bodies and in the mental skills work that we do. And it's just been that's part of the main thing is just the integration feeling like you're just another one of the high performance teams within Hockey Canada, just like their women's team, just like their world junior team, just like their men's team. And I feel like our team is on par with that now.

Anastasia:  How is your body holding up?

Greg Westlake:    Thank you for asking. Nobody asks that!  I think there's always wear and tear. I've been really lucky, I've never had any…. Well, my wife would beg to differ, but I've never had any head injuries or anything like that. So, you know, concussion proof, which is good. But no, you know what? I feel good. I'm excited.

We have the luxury, I always think, with the Olympic hockey world, I get to go train and I get to go, not take contact for months at a time because we don't play an 82 NHL games season, right? And so there is a lot of wear and tear from practice, but we're not taking contact all year round. We only take contact, you know, at games and the practices are hard but I really feel like for us, like we get to control when we peak. And so I know in March of this year, I got big games in Beijing and I know in, you know, 2018 in Korea in March. That was the big games then. So we get to kind of pick and choose when we peak, when we need our bodies feeling the best. So that's kind of fun. That's exciting. That's not easy to do, but you can make a game plan and go and go attack it. But you know, there's definitely lots of injuries in our sport. I've been very lucky to avoid the surgeries and the long time away, but you know, it's not too bad right now.

Anastasia:  I have only had the opportunity and privilege to play para hockey once. I wasn't very good, but what surprised me most was just how much it hurt my cartilage in my elbows.

Greg Westlake:    Oh yeah, my, that's probably my worst. When you asked me that like, that's my worst thing right now is my elbows.

Anastasia:  But as a speed skater, I didn't, I never thought of my elbows, one time in my entire life and playing your sport,  I was like, Oh my gosh, do I have golf elbow? tennis elbow? Para-hockey elbow? Like, it's wild just what you put your poor elbows through.

Greg Westlake:    Yeah. You know, same with our back and our shoulders. And you know, like what? We're essentially, that's the thing about adaptive sport and Paralympic sport in general that's really unique is you're playing fundamentally the same game. You're out there, you're playing a hockey game. It's yeah, it's the same rules. It's the same positions, you know, defense centre, wing, goalie, you know, you're playing the same game, but you're playing a different way to do it. That's different than you're not used to. That puts stresses on parts of your body that you wouldn't think about on a daily basis.

And so, you know, we hear that all the time because, you know, we treat our elbows like our knees and we treat our shoulders like our hips. We've adapted to this sport. So we treat a lot of small muscle groups and small joints on our body for things that they're probably not meant to do. And so when you think of it, just from that standpoint, from kind of a physiological standpoint, it is really hard on your body and really taxing because your elbows aren't your knees, they're not meant to take that load every day. And so you really got to build up to and it's not something you can just jump in a sled and be like, OK, I'm going to do this now, like, you got to build up to it. And that's where with our sport, because it's such a physically demanding upper body sport like you do need a certain level of strength to move the sled, to raise the puck, to kind of really enjoy it out there. You see it with kids all the time where they're so passionate you'll have like a seven year old who just loves the sport, but you can just tell, like, it's just going to take some time. That kid just needs to get a little bit older, a little bit stronger so they can really enjoy it. How it's meant to be played. And so it's like a waiting game. If you just you hope they stay with it, you hope that they love it enough that they can see the benefit and they're having fun with their friends so that they stay with it and can really get the fruits of their labour down the road.

Anastasia:  Oh, for sure. First and foremost, happy to hear that you're doing OK with the injuries. Knock on wood. But you mentioned kids. I can only imagine that you've got team-mates who were being born in and around the time that you actually got on the team. What's that like to be such a mentor and vet now?

Greg Westlake:    It's really fun just to have that, that parity and the difference in age groups and all that. And it's fun for me because I remember coming in as an 18 year old, 17 year old, and I remember thinking the guys who are 35 and 36 on the team were so old.

Anastasia:  Yeah, I remember similar experiences.

Greg Westlake:    I'd be friends with them and we'd have coffee and we'd hang out and we'd sit together at dinners. But like, we weren't hanging out outside of the rink too much, outside of team planned events. And then so now to be that 35 year old. I'll just look at an 18 year old and I'm just like, Man, does that guy think I'm so old?

But other than that, I just remember being in those shoes so well. But I also remember, like you remember the good things showed to you. You remember the kindness, you remember the help that you got. You remember the guys kind of showing you the way, taking time with you to make sure that you know you're not messing up or doing the wrong thing, especially in a team sport atmosphere. You know, like, we don't have time for individuals. We don't have time for people who don't want to buy into kind of team atmosphere and team goals of winning gold medals. So, you know, you remember all the kindness and all the help you had kind of learning the ropes and you just try to pass that down as well so that, you know, it's not a tough transition for other guys, and they can just get the full experience of having fun and not having to be in trouble all the time, right? Because ultimately, you just want to make it a good experience so people want to be there and get success.

Anastasia:  Well, you're probably teaching them a lot. What are they teaching you?

Greg Westlake:    How to keep up in this sport! You know, I've kind of gone through a transition of, you know, remember when the NHL went from tons of like holding and hooking and physical play to now it's a very skilled speed game, right? And everything is faster and a little less physical, but more about speed and skill. And that's the one thing that I really try to do as I get older is just watch what everyone is doing in practise and the skills they're trying to learn. And when I was playing coming up, it was more about contact and puck possession and sending a message and chipping a puck low and going to get a big hit on their defenceman.

And now it's OK: How can we use our speed to get around them and keep the puck and make nice plays? And the young guys now like that, they just want to deke and make nice passes and they're so controlled in their sled. And so I always think if you're not trying to learn those new skills like you're going to get left behind really quickly and you know, you see it in sports all the time when there's a rule change and half the league all of a sudden can't keep up. So, you know, I've always wanted to try to be able to play any style just so that I can stick around as long as possible. And that's where the young guys really help you.

Anastasia:  So what's the biggest thing that they're doing or bringing to the table that really didn't exist when you were their age?

Greg Westlake:    Not that it didn't exist, but I think the physical fitness level right now of just our Paralympians in general is just going up every year because, you know, again, as you would know, I think so much in life in general is you got to kind of know your worth and ask for more. And we've been constantly doing that every year as as people with disabilities, as Paralympic athletes and mostly just want equality, right? The same ability to train at really high performance gyms, and to eat really high performance foods, and just have the same chance as Olympians and high level athletes to go out there and give our best performances.

 And what I see right now is there's just been so much more buy in from an NSO level, you know, so from Hockey Canada, from the Canadian Paralympic Committee to cycling and Skiing and Swimming Canada, you know, all the NSO's, they're all investing in their Paralympic programmes so much. And so we're developing such strong, fast athletes so much faster and at such a younger age. And that's that's been the biggest difference I see because I think in the past our programme was relying on too few people if we didn't have enough, a deep enough roster of players.

And so if if certain guys didn't score goals, we wouldn't win games. And now I think we're in a different spot. We got a deep roster of guys. We have three lines that can score a goal. So right now, it's a really exciting time because there's so many good athletes in our programme and in the Paralympics in general that it forces you to work harder. For me, being 35 now I'm working the hardest I've ever worked. Which you have to, just because your body's not the same, but it's the internal competition and I want to be on the team and I want to play meaningful minutes and they make it really hard because they're so talented and the investment of the resources has just been there for the last, you know, six to eight years, which is paying dividends now for other young athletes.

Anastasia:  Yeah, it's so nice to hear just, you know, the progress that's been made. You have been such a champion, and I'm not just saying that to pump your tires because you're on this podcast, but you've done so much good work and furthered so many conversations. Your TV series put so many issues under a magnifying glass, and so many  conversations came out of that in and around, specifically coaching. So can you educate our listeners, please, because I think that they need to hear this? What are some of the not so obvious things to think about in coaching para athletes?

Greg Westlake:    Yeah. Well, I think the one thing I saw when we were doing this show and thank you for the plug, by the way, for "level playing field"

One, I just had such a great time doing it. It was really fun to just talk to people outside of my comfort zone. And sometimes I find I deal with 20 year old men all the time, like, that's what I deal with. Those are my team-mates on the hockey team, is young men, and I know what their issues are and what they're going through and whether it's mental, physical, whatever, that's what I'm close to.

And so this interview series was really fun because I got to talk to female athletes who were trying to get into coaching post-playing career. And hear some of their struggles. I talk to trans athletes and talked about, you know, when they're travelling for sport, what countries like, what's it like to compete when you don't even feel safe being in the venue because you don't know if you're going to be sent to jail or not because they don't want you there? And so it was just really fun to have those conversations and hear other people's experiences and their truths about wanting to represent Canada. Because I know what it's like for me to want to wear the leaf and travel the world and play and represent Canada. But for somebody else, even though we're sort of doing the same thing, they have an entirely different experience. And so I think that was really fun.

And on the coaching side, you know, the number one thing that stood out to me was just lack of opportunity. And no, not like in a bad way. I'm not going to put anyone on blast right here, but there just seems to be, you know, especially in the disabled world and the Paralympic world. Not a lot of opportunity for ex- players. You know, it seems like we always go and get an able-bodied coach. An able-bodied male coach to come in and coach our hockey team. But we don't often look at ex Paralympian ex Paralympic athletes as taking that next step in coaching and management and high level sporting jobs. Even if that's a  pro job in hockey like an NHL league or something like that. I just think more and more high level career opportunities need to be present and not just, you know, thank somebody for their 15 years of service and send them on their way.

I don't think that feels like a fair goodbye. And talking to other athletes and especially the athletes that really want to get into coaching and are doing their levels and putting in the right time and effort, you know, now they need somewhere to go practise their craft. And that's where there's just such a lack of opportunity because there's not so many, there's not a ton of Paralympic teams. So if you're saying because somebody with a disability can only coach a disabled team, well, there's not enough teams to coach. And so at some point someone's going to have to break through and get on with a high level team and show what they can do. And that will be a truly an exciting day. And for me, a lot of my heroes and people I copy, what they do are a lot of women, actually.

 

And I mean that in the sense of, I always thought as a Paralympic athlete, I always related more to the women's side than the men's side. Like, I never related to Sidney Crosby. I don't know what it's like to have an eight year deal worth $70 million. I don't know what that's like, but I always remember relating to the women when I was coming up , the Hayley Wickenheisers, the Cassie Campbells, the Cheryl Pounders, who were living on a carding check who just wanted to represent their country. Canada just wants to win gold medals, and they always pushed for more. They always asked for more. They always knew what they were worth and they went out every day and tried to get it. And so I think being around like incredible people like that really opened my eyes to if we want to have serious progress in this Paralympic movement and athletes with disabilities. I'm looking at the rubric I'm looking at, at the plan you have to follow because I was around so many great athletes and of the amateur sporting world. So I just copied a lot of what the women were doing to push their programme forward and develop that. And I stole so much from the amazing women athletes I knew in my life.

[music]

Anastasia:  You had a great and passionate argument not all that long ago that the Olympics and Paralympics are far more separate and separated than they should be. Two solitudes, really? So you advocated for this all happening together same time. Are you getting any ground there?

Greg Westlake:    I do think it should be at the same time. I don't know if that's like I'm going to put my stick in the ground and die on that hill, but I think it helps for a number of reasons. I mean, I do think it's a logistical nightmare, especially in the summer games, because there's just so many athletes in the Summer Olympics. So I know that would be tough. But that being said, I just think, you know, I think the London Paralympics are a great example. If you go back to 2012, I believe that was and what London did was they just said, we're not going to change a thing from the Olympics to the Paralympics, we are just going to do the exact same thing. So when the Paralympics were going on, they just played all the games in the pubs and the bars and all the social places. And what they found is people loved it. And so it's kind of like if you build it, they will come moment, you know, a little field of dreams moment where what London found was people do take pride in their Paralympic medals and their athletes and the people wearing the union jack on their outfit.

And so if they just played the 100 metre dash and there was a Great Britain athlete and they did well, people were going crazy and cheering and having shots and drinks and really enjoying the sporting experience. And so, you know, you just got to give it the same respect. You got to build it out to the same platform and give it to the masses and then let them decide. But London did a great job of that. Ideally, it's the same time, so no buzz gets lost because often what's happens is the Olympics go on, I think that two week break kills momentum and kills buzz. It kills media buzz. Everybody sends people for the Olympics. They end. A lot of people home. And then sometimes we get some media left over… it is getting better,don't get me wrong, but that is a reality of the situation is it's hard for people to be away from home for eight weeks of their life to go cover a sporting event and because they're so separate. And now with COVID and all that, I don't know how many people will stick around and how many people will still be watching. But the more you integrate and treat everything the same and blow it up to a grand scale. Now you're giving people a chance of success because I think the Paralympics, it's all about storytelling. Everybody's been through something in life in the Paralympics, and then they've come out the other side. They want to be an athlete, a leader in their community, all those great things, but they need the platform to show it. And so I just think if you give that opportunity, some of the stories that will come out of it will be life changing and create heroes for life. So that excites me.

 

Anastasia:  What's the biggest pushback on that, that you've faced? I mean, you had mentioned, right, just the logistics of a summer games. And you're right. Summer is so much larger than winter. But other than that, what's the pushback?

Greg Westlake:    You know, I definitely think there's still a stigma a little bit. I remember I was at a dinner a couple of years ago with, I don't know if you know the name Aurelie Rivard?

Anastasia:  Of course!  she's a  superstar!

Greg Westlake:    She's one of the best Canadian Paralympic swimmers of all time. She's won, you know, 10,000 medals. She's amazing. But I remember hearing a story about winning a gold medal and she was in like an Air Canada lounge or something, and somebody came up to her and was like, Oh, that's cool. Show me your medals. And there was her gold medal, but the person said it's not like a real Olympic medal, you know, it's the Paralympic model, and it just kind of there's still little kind of comments like that and little like kind of, I think truths that we're uncomfortable kind of facing which I appreciate having this conversation with you right now. And I know that's not everybody's mentality. Honestly, I do, but it still exists in the world out there where, you know, just like there's people right now who don't think that that women should be competing in high level sport.

There's a same group of people that don't believe that people with disabilities deserve that opportunity. And so, you know, at the end of the day, you can't you can't change every single, ignorant mind, but you can celebrate your stories, you know, and you can make sure that Aurelie Rivard never feels that way again because her medals are incredible and  worth just as equal amount as an Olympic medal, in my opinion. And so I do think there's a little bit of kind of ableism in the fact that some people just don't know how to respond and react to people with disabilities. And I went through it myself. I was somebody who growing up I grew up a very able bodied lifestyle, like I had two artificial legs, but I never wanted to play Paralympic sports. I never wanted to play disabled sports. I just wanted to play sports with my buddies at school and make friends and live, you know, quote unquote normal life. And it wasn't until I got a little bit older and I met some Paralympic athletes the Brad Bowdens and , Billy Bridges, and just saw how they could skate on the ice and how fast they could shoot the puck and. And then I saw the sport and saw it was full contact. But it took me getting out of my comfort zone and meeting somebody that used a wheelchair and meeting somebody that had a disability that was just an incredible athlete.

And they sold me. And then I was like, OK, I believe in this. Let's go do this. Let's make this as big as possible. But I had to meet somebody and have some of those conversations. Hey, what's it like to play this sport? What's it like to live every day in a wheelchair, what's it like to have to train and be a high performance athlete while you're dealing with other stuff that takes you away from that? And it was in those conversations that I didn't see weakness. I saw an incredible amount of strength. And I saw heroes. And so like, honestly, my team-mates have had such a profound impact on my life. But you got to be willing to have those conversations and put yourself in somebody else's shoes to gain that respect. And so if I wasn't caught up in that world, I don't know if I would have got there myself. And so I just think people need to have an open mind and give it a chance.

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Anastasia:  So what is it like to watch the Olympics being so close to the paralympics like, I mean, people always say, Oh, it's so stressful, so inspirational. So this, so that. What does that feel like to know that 24-7, obviously the Olympics are on TV and yet you are in such a vulnerable, stressful time where you've got to just batten down the hatches and focus on the job that you want to complete. in you know, 15 minutes time, basically.

Greg Westlake:    Yeah, you know, it's a great question. I've never been asked before, so I appreciate that. Right now is a tough time. Not tough, stressful is a good word.  I'm not myself right now, I'm so close to leaving. Like I leave in two days for a 50 some day trip, and I know that when I come back from that trip, it'll all be over and done with. And so it's a weird mindset knowing that the next time I sleep on my own bed, the games will be over. The results will be done. And you know, it's just it's such a bizarre feeling. I don't even know how to articulate it, which is rare for me, but it is a weird feeling watching it. And you know what? The big thing for me is the venues.

So for me, I'm watching a men or women's hockey game and they're in the venue that I'm going to be in in two weeks. But I'm in Canada and they're in a different country and it's the broadcast team. Honestly, I'm going to throw it back at you a bit. I remember when I was watching in 2010, the women's team won, the men's team won, and then obviously we're up third. And as you know, the teams piling on and celebrating winning gold, the commentator I forget who was at the time, but the commentator says, like 'and the sledge hockey team, you're next'. And that was kind of the last wrap up quote. And so everything was good. We were celebrating watching and then they made that comment like, Oh yeah, we are next. And so it is bizarre because the passage of time, especially when you know something's coming, is either so fast or so slow. And so there's times when I'm watching the Olympics where it literally feels like I blinked and I'm in that venue the next day. There's a lot of things that I do to distract myself than just sit and think about hockey for 24 hours.

 

Anastasia:  I completely relate to what you just said. I found watching the games so incredibly stressful when I was competing, and I watched almost every second in Vancouver and in Sochi, I couldn't stay farther from a TV because it just put too much pressure on myself. I don't know. Do you feel that way?

Greg Westlake:    Well, so I find I can watch other events. It's really just again is the venue for me. It's seeing the ice. The bench is like, it's like I can feel myself there. And yeah, it's that. So I don't maybe love watching every hockey game like I will watch it because I love the sport and I'm very passionate about seeing the Canadian teams win. And I think as I get to know the athletes a bit better, especially on the women's side, we tend to interact with them a bit more. And so I know those girls now and I've seen the work that they put in and I want to see them be successful.

So I want to watch because the guys you know, like the amateur sporting world, the Canadian amateur sporting world, especially, it's not the biggest world. And so like, you get to know these people and these athletes. And so I do enjoy watching the Olympics for my friends. But in terms of like just background fodder for like, Oh, I'm bored, I'm going to watch the Olympics. Like, I don't do that. I kind of like, I kind of pick and choose like, I'm watching my friends race at this time. I'm watching the hockey game at this time, but it's never like, I don't just flip around when I'm competing.

I loved watching the Summer Games this year because you know that actually I found kind of lit a fuse for me watching Damian Warner and some of the Canadian heroes that came out of that games. That was fun. That excited me because the thought of competing so far from my brain, it's, you know, it's like the Summer Olympics is such a different world than the Winter Olympics. I'm not around those athletes as much. I don't know them as well. And so I just get to be a fan.

Anastasia:  Yeah. We're singing from the same hymn book.  Summer Sport for me was always just inspirational and winter, oh my gosh, I would be. I'd be too stressed. So, but I mean, you're obviously a fan of sports. So what's your favourite winter sport to watch when you're not playing?

Greg Westlake:  Because I'm in Calgary, I spent a lot of time with the luge, bobsled, all of them. So I'm always watching the bobsled team. I always feel like I know a bunch of people on that team. But yeah, so probably some of those like the skeleton, the bobsled. We don't watch a lot of sports like this in Canada, where as you're coming through, it's like this in speed skating as well. They're telling you, OK, you're ahead of the pace by 0.1 second and now you're behind the pace by point one. And so kind of watching the athlete versus the clock, I find I nerd out and find that oddly exciting.

Anastasia:  Mostly in my time in speed skating. I was 0.1 behind the leader. You know what I'm saying? I didn't see too much green in my career…

Greg Westlake:    it will make the come back even better!.

Anastasia:  Yeah, baby. 2026, here I come.

[music]

 So give us a rundown, you know what we can expect in Beijing from Team Canada?

Greg Westlake:    Yeah, well, I think for us, I think you can expect, expect really good games. I think we've done a great job of setting up our schedule. The way that we're running this tournament this year is it's not -in the past you'd have kind of like Team one ranked one through four in one division and the other teams and you saw a lot of mismatches. You saw a lot of like scores that were higher? Kind of like the women's game, you'd be the team eight-one or ten-one, and that's going away from our sport. That's, you know, being eradicated. There's so much depth and so much parity now. I think if you tune in, you're going to see competitive games. You know, we're opening our tournament against the USA. We play the next morning against Russia. That's going to be back to back to hard games right out the gate. If you're a Canadian hockey fan, you're going to see 18 guys that love the sport, that love wearing the Maple Leaf and are out there not just fighting for gold, but fighting for respect and fighting for people to understand that what we do is a really hard thing and that we're as passionate as athletes, as anyone. So we just can't wait to go out there and share our individual stories. But also our story as a team and our story as a team is coming back from heartbreak. We didn't like the way that we lost in 2018. It was a close game. We lost in overtime and now we get a chance to kind of change that narrative.

And we've done so much work on our mental game, our mental prep. We've really come together as a group of guys and now we deserve that payoff to go win a gold medal together and be on that blue line and sing oh Canada. And you know, I have it all mapped out in my head. I can I can play it all out perfectly for you, but I really think the guys deserve that, you know, even just if I wasn't even on the team, just from an outsider's perspective, looking in… the work that's gone into it has been incredible. And we just want to share that with Canada now.

Anastasia:  Let the games begin.

Greg Westlake:    Let's go. We can't wait.

Anastasia:  Yeah. I'm just so grateful that you took the time to chat this close to the Paralympics, and I'm pumped for you guys.

Greg Westlake:    Thank you so much. You're the best.

Anastasia:  Thanks, Greg. Peace

Greg Westlake:    Peace! 

Greg Westlake and I caught up just before these games got underway.

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Olivia Pasquarelli is our editor

Adam Blinov wrote our theme music.

 David Giddens is our producer.

Thanks for listening.

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