OKOTOKS - When Zach Lavin first made Canada’s National Para Hockey Team in 2017-18, he set a new goal for himself - to don the maple leaf at the 2022 Paralympic Games in Beijing. With that goal accomplished, his sights are now set on a gold medal.
"It’s kind of funny," he said. "You look forward to making the team originally, then you set new goals of actually getting some solid minutes and contributing to the team. I’m so excited to finally be named to this roster, but now it’s go time, you know. We’ve been training so long for this, we’ve been through the zoom calls, COVID, and cancellations, and I’m just really excited with this group of guys to just get out there and play some hockey."
Originally from Essex, Ontario, Lavin moved to Alberta roughly a decade ago, and in 2016 his life changed forever. While hiking in Kananaskis Country, Lavin lost his way on a trail, and spent three days trying to find his way back, before a search and rescue crew found him. Due to severe frostbite, doctors had to amputate both of his feet.
As an active, multi-sport athlete, Lavin chose not to let his accident be a tragedy, but rather to turn it into a new challenge and opportunity for himself. Although never actually playing hockey growing up, he found para hockey through a chance encounter in Okotoks.
"After my accident, I felt like I got a second chance at life, and I just wanted a fresh start," he said. "So I ended up at a gym in Okotoks, and met a kind-of Okotoks famous guy there, Chris Cedarstrand. He had kind-of been at the end of his career, and I caught him at the gym, and he brought me out to the rink and introduced me to para hockey for the first time. I was instantly hooked by seeing his speed and the way he could maneuver the puck, so I kind-of got carried away training with him."
While he admits he’s had his ups and downs since his accident, as anyone would, Lavin said finding para hockey has really helped him stay positive and driven.
"I think the biggest thing is just the people you surround yourself with," he said. "I’ve been gifted with an amazing family who have helped me a lot, but I also went to seek out mentors who were successful people, and people who maybe had been in similar situations as myself, and I try to learn and model my actions off of theirs. Meeting all these people, from cancer survivors, to people who fought for our country, and seeing how they took tragedies and turned them into something triumphant, and how they’re carrying on with their lives, it’s been pretty amazing to just see that and try and take what I can from their stories."
Now, with the opportunity to play in the Paralympics for the first time, Lavin is excited to help showcase para hockey to the world, and to be a role model to young athletes who may find themselves in a similar situation as himself.
"I think it’s huge," he said. "I think during this pandemic, we saw a lot of younger programs losing their access to sport, and seeing how detrimental that was for people’s mental health and physical well being. I think there’s a lot of kids out there that maybe, because of their disability, think they won’t get those same benefits through sport. But, I hope when they see us out there, training five or six days a week and giving our all, that they look up to that and they reach out to the grassroots programs and try to find opportunities to do the same."
And for those aspiring para-athletes, Lavin had some simple advice.
"Try and just take the tough times, and digest it," he said. "But, make sure that you have goals that you set forward, so that you can get after those achievements."
With all he’s already accomplished in his life, and in his relatively short time in para hockey, Lavin said a gold medal in Beijing would obviously be the ultimate achievement.
"It’s an amazing feeling just to put the jersey on," he said. "To win a gold medal in hockey, playing for Canada, would be the most amazing thing I think I could ever achieve in my life. I mean, there’s people from coast-to-coast that are with you, supporting you, it’d be the most unreal moment of my life."