Team Canada para hockey captain brings Terry-Fox inspired fundraising marathon to Lake Windermere Whiteway
By Steve Hubrecht
In a little more than a week the world famous Lake Windermere Whiteway will be the site of one chapter of a bladed version of Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope.
Tyler McGregor first put on skates when we was two years old. By three he was playing organized hockey. He fell in love with the sport, and by the time he was 15, in the fall of 2009, he was on the verge of fulfilling his athletic dreams: he was playing at the triple AAA level in southwestern Ontario, and was preparing for the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) draft.
But during the first tournament of the season, in September 2009, he collided with another player, breaking his tibia and fibula. Not wanting to possibly spend up to six months in a full leg cast, he had surgery to repair the fracture. He was back skating four weeks later, but troublingly he developed an odd mass on the site of the fracture, just below his left knee.
“We couldn’t pinpoint any cause for the mass, it was strange,” McGregor told the Pioneer.
Stranger, and more troubling still, by January 2010 the mass had grown to the size of a tennis ball.
Another surgery, this one an emergency surgery, followed, with a biopsy confirming that McGregor had spindle cell sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.
McGregor started chemotherapy right away, but doctors were clear with him. “They didn’t mince words. One told me straight up: ‘In order to save your life, we have to amputate your leg’,” said McGregor. “As a young athlete, with dreams of playing professional hockey, it was devastating news.”
There was no choice though: McGregor had the amputation, just above his left knee, and then did eight months of chemotherapy.
“I was 15 and 16 years old when I was going though this, but I spent a lot of time during treatment in a hospital (London Children’s Hospital in Ontario) with kids who were a lot younger than me. It was very scary for me, but these kids were so much younger and many of them were in situations more severe than mine,” said McGregor. “We spent time together, and I became like an older brother to some of them. They were very innocent kids and they were being robbed of their childhood. That stuck with me then, and it still does.”
For recovery, McGregor took inspiration from Canadian legend Terry Fox, who had long been a special icon in his family. Fox had suffered from osteosarcoma — a form of bone cancer that is in some respects similar to the spindle cell sarcoma that McGregor had. Fox’s right leg was amputated, but that did not prevent the athletic young man (who was a competitive runner) from beginning his famous Marathon of Hope, in which Fox ran a marathon each day while heading from Newfoundland en route to Victoria, B.C. in an effort to raise money and awareness about cancer and cancer research. Unfortunately Fox’s cancer spread and he was forced to end his Marathon in northwestern Ontario, but not before millions of dollars had been raised and millions of people had heard his message.
“I too wanted to find a way back to the sport I loved,” McGregor told the Pioneer.
And find it he did, when he was introduced to what was then called sledge hockey (and is now called para hockey). In para hockey, athletes (who typically have a physical impairment in the lower part of their bodies) use double-bladed sledges instead of stakes to move on the ice, and have two sticks, each with a blade end for shooting and a spiked end for propulsion.
McGregor took to para hockey quickly and well. He began playing in 2011. By 2012 he was a member of the Canadian national team.
“It was a quick transition, but it was a steep learning curve,” he explained. “When I started, it was just an outlet for me. I was struggling with how to re-integrate myself back into life, and para hockey seemed like a good idea. But once I began to realize how different it is, especially in terms of coordination and body mechanics, as well as how difficult it is, I became hooked. I loved the challenge of it. And I knew I didn’t just want to participate, but to compete at the highest level possible.”
McGregor did just that, and he’s now captain of the Canadian team. In his decade with the national squad, he’s been to three Paralympic Games (winning two silver medals and one bronze medal), and to six world championships (winning two gold medals and four silver medals).
“The Paralympics were incredible, the highest honour in my life,” said McGregor. “It’s just a unifying experience. And to be able to go three times has been fantastic. I will never forget my first time at the Games (in Sochi, Russia, in 2014), walking out into a stadium of 40,000 cheering people for the opening ceremony and spotting my family in the crowd.”
McGregor said it has been a true privilege that his para hockey career has taken him around the globe, and added he’s grateful that the Paralympics in particular have taken him to Russia, South Korea and China. “My favourite was South Korea (at the Pyeongchang Paralympic Games) in 2018. It was such a unique culture. It was interesting because Pyeongchang is a mostly rural area, so we got to see part of the country outside of the major urban centres. And of course, on the other hand, we spent time in Seoul too, which is a huge, crazy city,” he said. “I’d love to go back there some day, to take the time to just be a proper tourist.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, most para hockey competitions were cancelled, and McGregor suddenly found himself with spare time on his hands. He decided it was a great chance to give back, and to try to raise awareness about — and money for — cancer research, just as Fox had done.
To that end, he organized the first Sledge Skate of Hope, a one-day event held in Collingwood, Ontario, in February 2021, in which McGregor sledge skated 25 kilometres.
“It was trial and error, I was unsure of the distance I should go, and the fundraising goals I should set,” he told the Pioneer. “I didn’t know what was ambitious enough, yet still realistically achievable.”
McGregor aimed to raise $25,000 — $1,000 for every kilometres skated. He hit that goal and then some, ultimately raising more than $31,000.
Encouraged, he vowed to do another Sledge Skate of Hope on a larger scale. It’s this second Sledge Skate of Hope, which will bring McGregor to Invermere (and to every province across the country).
For the 2023 Sledge Skate of Hope, over the course of a month and a half, McGregor is going to sledge skate 42 kilometres (the full distance of a marathon, and incidentally the same distance Terry Fox ran each day during his Marathon of Hope) in each of Canada’s 10 provinces. McGregor’s fundraising goal this time out is to raise $100,000 for the Terry Fox Foundation.
He began a week ago in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where warm Maritime winter temperatures forced him to blade his way around a skating oval instead of on his intended venue. That change didn’t faze McGregor however, and he sledge skated the full 42 kilometres in a little less than three hours.
“It went really well. It was mild, sure, but there was a really great turnout of people to join me, including some local para hockey players,” McGregor told the Pioneer the day after the skate. “My body held up, although I’m definitely very sore. My shoulders started to go numb about halfway through, but I just kept going.”
Through the rest of January and February, McGregor will be hitting up iconic skating spots across the nation, including the famous Rideau Canal in Ottawa (which will be his Ontario sledge skating marathon), the Forks in Winnipeg (his Manitoba marathon), the Lac-des-Loups Skateway trail, which winds through a Quebecois evergreen forest, as well as the Lake Windermere Whiteway (which will be his B.C. marathon).