Tyler McGregor has been a part of medal-winning efforts before. Even a gold medal victory.
But on April 20, on the ice in Gangneung, South Korea, half a world away from his home in Forest, Ont., something was sweeter.
“This time around was a little different in that I kind of felt like a bigger part of it and was able to contribute a little more. It had also been four years since we had won a World Championship.”
That changed this year as McGregor scored twice in a 4-1 victory over the United States to capture gold at the 2017 World Para Hockey Championship. McGregor tied for the tournament lead with 12 goals.
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McGregor was on Team Canada in 2013 when he was just 19 as they captured gold at the Worlds. He was a bigger part of Canada’s bronze medal win at the Paralympics and remembers the sting of the World Championship in Buffalo last May, when his side was edged out by Team USA in the final.
“They’d had our number,” said McGregor. “I definitely appreciate how tough it is to win and win consistently, so this has been incredible. It still hasn’t really hit me.”
Canada’s gold medal performance in South Korea takes them to the top of a world stage that is watching a true rise in the level of competition. Russia was not permitted to participate at this year’s Worlds and that opened a door that the host nation walked right through. South Korea has made huge strides in the sport and wound up capturing the bronze medal.
McGregor’s life is turning into a gold medal performance. As a teenager, he saw his hockey dreams ripped away from him right before the 2010 OHL Priority Selection when he was diagnosed with a spindle cell sarcoma in his left leg.
He had broken his leg and was in the process of rehabbing and returning to the ice when doctors found a lump. Very quickly, things went from seeming not that serious to life changing.
To save his life, McGregor had to lose his leg. Over the years, when he has been asked about it, one of the most common words McGregor has used is “devastating.” It’s one of those times where language fails to fully describe the way someone is feeling.
If you ask him about it now, McGregor still feels the same way. He likely always will. How can a time like that in someone’s life ever be anything but devastating? Still, McGregor now has a story to tell that begins from the moment he was told about his cancer and was then told his leg would have to be amputated.
“I still think at the time I was absolutely devastated because it is hard to foreshadow what is going to happen. I thought my career was over, but now I look back at that as being a fork in the road and fortunately, I was able to channel that disappointment in the right direction and use it as motivation to continue my hockey career and make sure that I make the most of it. I feel very fortunate to still be playing and playing at a high level and I’m only 23 and sometimes I think I forget that. I still have a long hockey career in front of me and that’s exciting.”
McGregor isn’t just becoming one of the faces of Canadian Para hockey. His skills have already taken him beyond that.
In a preview of the 2017 Worlds for www.paralympic.org, Stuart Lieberman wrote, “(McGregor) is entering the event as one of the best players in the world.”
And he has been a part of some changes to the style of play that Canada employed in South Korea.
“We very rarely dump the puck in anymore. We had to change our forecheck and change our penalty kill and our offensive attack to try to take away their speed. We have become faster ourselves.”
Team Canada jumped out to a 2-0 first period lead in the gold medal game and then secured their championship in the second period when McGregor scored goals just 13 seconds apart.
“We tried to dictate the pace of the game and force them to defend us and I think that was a huge reason for our success.”
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There is a great mix of veterans and youth left on Team Canada. Greg Westlake and Brad Bowden have been stars on the international stage for a long time. They are the guys who keep the name “sledge hockey” alive in the dressing room, even though the IPC has officially changed the name to Para Hockey or Para Ice Hockey.
Westlake and Bowden are now in their 30s. There is no need to plan any retirement parties yet, but when those do come up, Tyler McGregor will be there to continue to lead the way forward for Canada.