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Westlake serves as ambassador for sled hockey

by Brian Hunter

In 10 years since being named to the Canadian national sledge hockey team, Greg Westlake's biography has been highlighted by gold medals at the 2006 Paralympic Winter Games in Torino and the 2008 IPC Ice Sledge Hockey World Championships in Marlborough, Mass., where he scored the decisive goal in the final against Norway.

But the 26-year-old Westlake, who had both legs amputated when he was only 18 months old, would rather discuss his charity work to promote Hockey is for Everyone initiatives that deliver the sport to people whose disabilities he describes as far worse than his own.

"We were doing a 'Try Sledge Hockey Day' in the east coast of Canada," said Westlake, who hails from Oakville, Ontario. "I had a guy come out, he broke his back in a car accident on the way home from his men's league game. He came out and was playing sledge hockey for the first time, he just had tears coming down. It was his first time on the ice in 11 years since his accident. He never thought he'd get to play hockey again."

Despite losing his legs at a young age, Greg Westlake has become one of the world's top sledge hockey players and a worldwide ambassador for the sport. (Photo: Hockey Canada)

Although losing his legs at such an early age curtailed Westlake's dreams of playing in the National Hockey League, it didn't keep him from developing a love for the game. He grew up participating in kickboxing and jiu-jitsu as well as organized school sports, and was introduced to sledge hockey by his parents in his early teens.

"I actually hated it the first time I played," Westlake said with a chuckle. "Just because I wasn't very good and I thought I'd be a lot better."

Watching Canada's national team play, the draw of competing in full-contact sports while traveling the globe motivated Westlake to keep improving. He finally got the call to represent his country and wear the red-and-white Canada jersey in 2003.

"I absolutely fell in love with the sport," he said. "When I was 17, 18 years old and first had the opportunity to start traveling with Team Canada, it was pretty cool. I was going to places like Germany, Japan. I just kind of fell in love with the lifestyle as well, and that kept me going."

With the upcoming IPC World Championships, to be held this April in South Korea, and 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi circled on his calendar, there's a lot of work and conditioning left to do.

"When we're away from our national teams it's a lot of dedication," Westlake said. "You've just got to make the commitment to show up in shape all the time. I'm in the gym all the time and I'm on the ice with the guys on the team in my area."

Over the past decade, Westlake has seen sledge hockey -- known simply as sled hockey in the United States -- grow as a sport and begin to command a piece of the average Canadian's attention.

"I've seen a big change since the Vancouver Olympics. That was our first chance to get real big exposure. I used to tell people I played for Team Canada sledge hockey and they'd say, 'What's sledge hockey?' Now they at least know what it is," he said. "We don't get a ton of televised games, but people know what the sport is. They have a healthy respect for it and they understand the athleticism it takes to play."

Westlake is happy to help his sport grow, but his primary message is that regardless of what type of blow life might have dealt you, there's still a world of opportunity out there. As long as you're willing to go after it.

"Just because you might be in a wheelchair or use a prosthetic limb or something, life's not over. It doesn't mean you don't have to work out, eat healthy and enjoy your life," said Westlake. "When I think about Hockey is for Everyone, it doesn't matter what you have going on. It still feels good to get a workout in, it still feels good to play the game you love."

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