‘This is just the start,’ veteran Billy Bridges tells rookies after game
It was as if the Canadian para ice hockey players were frozen in time, suspended in the disbelief of it all. Some just stayed beside goalie Dominic Larocque, while most were on the bench with their heads hanging.
United States forward Declan Farmer’s second goal of the game, the golden goal in overtime, sent the Americans shooting out of their bench and into a frenzied celebration.
The Canadian players could barely watch as a massive American flag was brought out onto the ice by the players — the party just kept going. The Canadians still didn’t move.
The sting of the moment must have been even more painful considering Canada had a 1-0 lead with less than a minute left in the game.
With the American net empty and the team pushing for an equalizer, Canada’s Rob Armstrong skated down the right wing into the U.S. zone and fired a shot at the gaping net — and the puck rang agonizingly off the post.
Seconds later, the U.S. picked up the puck, raced down the ice and Farmer tied the game with 37 seconds remaining in regulation.
“That’s sport, eh?” head coach Ken Babey said after the game. “It was one of those plays where you shoot in it, the game is over. You hit the post, they come back the other way and score. It’s typical in hockey. It’s a hockey play that happened. Nobody to blame.”
The Canadians finally came together and gathered beside each other on the ice, many still unable to look at one another. The American anthem played and their flag was raised — a third-straight Paralympic gold medal for the United States.
This was the first gold medal game Canada was in since 2006, back when current captain Greg Westlake was a teenager making his first appearance at the Games. He knows the thrill of victory — and today the bitter taste of defeat.
“I’ve been at this for a long time,” he said. “I’ve been at the top of the mountain and at the very bottom where the walls are caving in and you don’t know why certain things are happening. There are answers out there that are beyond your control. That’s high performance sport and that’s life.”
When the team finally got to the dressing room, they rallied around one another.
“Every guy hugged each other. We were crying. It had nothing to do with losing a gold medal but the sadness of knowing this team won’t be together again,” Westlake said. “You never keep the same team. I love that group of guys and I’m so proud of them.”
Holding their heads high
Billy Bridges, in his fifth Paralympics, scored Canada’s only goal of the game. He, like Westlake, has been through so many battles on the ice for Canada and reflected on them after the game.
“I remember doing this interview in 2002 after we lost the bronze medal and being so clouded and wondering why we couldn’t get it done,” Bridges said. “I really feel clarity today that we have the best team in the world. Those guys need to hold their heads high for the next four years.”
That’s what Bridges wanted to focus on after the loss; he’s hopeful for the Canadian para ice hockey program and the sport.
“There is so much more that went on today. We showcased the sport. It’s unbelievable what these guys can do,” he said.
It’s a perspective Bridges admits he wouldn’t be able to have had when he first started playing. But all these years later, he can appreciate what this team did together and wants it to motivate Canadians.
“I really hope we can take what we did here today and know we’ve inspired people to get into the game. We just tried to do the best we could.”
‘This is just the start’
For the last four years, this group of Canadian para ice hockey players poured their hearts into the program, says Westlake.
“Those guys should be so proud of the way they played and the life lessons they learned to commit to this and work at this every single day.”
It’s a sentiment shared by the coach.
“I’m really proud of how are guys have taken themselves to a new level on and off the ice. They were first-class guys to work with every day. I challenged them every day and they responded,” Babey said.
Bridges, who has watched teammates come and go over his 18 years with the team, shared a message with first-timers after the game.
“We have so many new teammates. This was their first Games. They’re such incredible athletes. I reminded them of that. This is just the start,” he said.