In a sport such as ice sledge hockey, the love of the game tends to be the unifying element among so many players, eventually planting the seeds towards a flourishing friensdhip. For Tuyet Morris Yurczyszyn, the essence of friendship proved to be the most gratifying aspect of mounting the sled.
Raised in Brantford, Ontario, the hometown of hockey immortal Wayne Gretzky, the Vietnamese born Yurczyszyn was not immune to his impact in the game. Arriving in Canada in 1975, hockey would run deep in her loyalty towards her new home, becoming an enduring passion. Of note, her ties to the Gretzky family expand the fascination of the game for this new Canadian, who embraced the culture and staked her own heroic claim on the ice.
Yurczyszyn went to high school with two of Wayne Gretzky’s brothers, Glenn and Keith, who was later drafted by the Buffalo Sabres. She knew Keith as she used to help him with his math. Last year, her friendship with the Gretzky family resulted in a rare opportunity for some of her teammates,
“We had our training camp here last year in Brantford. Five of us went to Walter Gretzky’s house. After letting us inside, we went down to the basement where all the trophies and other hidden treasures are displayed. We saw the jerseys from all the different teams he played on. We saw so many of his trophies, everyone was in awe.”
While her current efforts are an inspiration for so many young disabled women considering sport, her youth was defined by an admiration for number 99. His accomplishments resulted in a powerful emotional connection, adding to the magic that she felt when she first donned the Canadian jersey as a world-class ice sledge hockey competitor.
“I have met Wayne many times. He used to hold a tennis classic in Brantford and he would invite hockey stars and celebrities. I still have some of his old Titan sticks, and he even signed them for me.”
Upon her entry into ice sledge hockey, there would be a new series of friends and mentors for Yurczyszyn to look up to. As the Brant County Crushers represented her initial foray towards the journey of competing for an eventual world championship, there was one person that she developed a solemn respect for.
“Jessie (Gregory), my goalie on the Crushers was a big influence. Her help was appreciated in the beginning of my first year. She had already been on the Ontario provincial team and the national team. She knew hockey more and she always had confidence in me. She was positive and encouraging and always told me not to be hard on myself.
She was always positive and helped me with the sled, showing me how to move the blades. She was so helpful and without her, I would not have been as confident in that first year.”
Perhaps the hidden beauty of ice sledge hockey, a game of endless fascination, is the fact that so many club teams feature men and women playing together. While the game at the international level does not feature mixed play, which would certainly make for intriguing hockey, the ability for both genders to mount the sled and grace the ice in mixed play only helps build respect and empathy. Two male members of the Crushers have been encouraging figures in contributing to the increase of Yurczyszyn’s confidence as a player,
“Another influence was a teammate named Duke. His real name is Martin Colton but he made me want to be like him. Everytime I asked him a question, he would help me. Currently, he is on the Canadian development team. Coach Dougie was great too. Whenever I would do something wrong, he would politely make a suggestion."
This summer, Yurczyszyn and Gregory will get the privilege to share in a special, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As the city of Toronto shall be the host city for the 2015 edition of the Pan Am and Para Pan Am Games, a torch relay is being held from coast-to-coast, a customary celebration.
Rosie MacLennan, a gold medalist from the London 2012 Summer Games was the first athlete (and first person) to carry the torch during its relay. As Yurczyszyn and Gregory look towards the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games and the dream of competing for Canada, the chance to serve as torch bearers this year is highly satisfying.
“I remember receving a call from the Pan Am Torch Committee. They had asked me if I would like to be a torch bearer. I did not even know about this. I was told that someone from the community had nominated me, although they were not allowed to tell at the time. They had sent me an e-mail and I needed to reply in order to make it official. Once I knew it was official, I was so happy.”
Not only does their participation in the torch relay emphasize the growing importance of disabled sports, and the fact that disabled athletes deserve to be looked upon as equals, it is an extension of their proud Canadian patriotism. Although Yurczyszyn and Gregory shall not be in the same city when they are scheduled to participate in their leg of the torch relay, they shall both be in each other’s hearts, testament to their friendship.
“It is great that Jessie is also participating too. She will not be in the same city though. I will be going to a different city to do my run but it is nearby in Cambridge. I am just overwhelmed and honored to know that I am carrying the torch.
It is another great honor for me, and I feel so blessed. It is one good thing after another. Sometimes I wonder why me, but I definitely want to share the wealth with other people.”
While hockey is part of Canada’s soul, it has been made whole by the efforts of the men and women who participate in ice sledge hockey. One day, pioneers such as Yurczyszyn shall be revered for what she represents, encouraging a generation of disabled individuals to pursue their dreams.
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Images provided by: Tuyet Morris Yurczyszyn