What’s the hardest-hitting sports rivalry between Canada and the United States?
Some might say ice hockey. Those who play wheelchair rugby know otherwise.
One of those who play wheelchair rugby, Merville’s Byron Green, definitely knows otherwise. And he should. He is one of the top players in the world in his sport and has been with the Canadian national team that has battled the U.S. in high-calibre competitions over the last decade.
The nations’ latest clash was in the final of the 2015 Parapan American Games Aug. 14 in Toronto, where Canada maintained its world #2 ranking by defeating the #3 Americans 57-54 in the gold medal game. It was one of the crowning moments in Green’s career to date (Canada won silver at the 2014 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships) but the best may be yet to come. The win in Toronto qualified Canada for the 2016 Rio Paralympics, where Canada and the U.S. will be looking to knock off world #1 Australia.
“The Parapans in Toronto was a pretty awesome experience,” Green said from his home in Vancouver. “The team was definitely training hard leading up to it. It was great to see it all pay off.”
Next up for the Canadian team is an October tournament in London, England that coincides with the able-bodied rugby World Cup. Green said the team is looking forward to playing in the Copper Box Arena, which was built for the 2012 Olympics. “They’re selling quite a few tickets so it’s going to be another great crowd, just like Toronto. That was definitely the biggest crowd I ever played in front of,” Green said of the 5,000-seat Hershey Centre hockey arena in Mississauga.
Canada finished second in the round-robin at the six-team Parapans, beating Brazil in the semis then taking out the U.S. in the final. Any extra nerves playing in front of the hometown crowd? “Not too bad actually,” the 31-year-old Green said. “I was thinking I was going to be feeling definitely a bit more nervous than normal, but I felt really comfortable actually.”
Green went to G.P. Vanier and after high school went to Vancouver to study civil engineering at UBC. Which is where he became involved in wheelchair rugby. “In Grade 12 I was mountain biking in Cumberland and took a nasty fall. I did my rehab at G.F. Strong in Vancouver. My rec therapist was Duncan Campbell, who introduced me to wheelchair rugby. He’s one of the inventors of the sport. It was pretty amazing, your rec therapist introducing you to the sport he helped invent.”
Green notes Campbell (who became his neighbour about a year ago) is responsible for recruiting most of the players on the B.C. provincial wheelchair rugby team. “I didn’t really get into it until I moved back (to Vancouver) for university. He got in touch with me and got me to come out. I’ve been hooked ever since (2004).”
Wheelchair rugby is played with four players per team on the court. “We don’t really play positions. We have point values, and four players can only add up to eight points. Each player is assigned a point value based on the level of injury, how much function they have, anywhere from .5 to 3.5 – the most disabled athlete to the least disabled.
“I’m a .5, kind of low ranking athlete on the totem pole. But I still have a very important role to play out on the court. We set a lot of picks, help our high pointers get the ball in, move up the floor, get across half court, you only have 12 seconds to get across the half court zone and 40 seconds to score. We’re setting the blocks and screens.”
Points are scored by having control of the ball and putting two wheels over the baseline between two cones set up on the baseline.
“It’s a pretty physical sport,” Green said. “When the sport was first invented (1976) it was actually called Murderball. It became a Paralympic sport in 2000 and they decided they better change the name,” Green laughed.
“There’s a lot of contact, a lot of physicality. I think that’s what really draws in a lot of people to watch the sport and play the sport.”
The age range on the Canadian team is roughly 21 to 45, and Green notes that is the norm for disabled sports. “An athlete might not be injured until they’re 25 or 26, then it takes a little while of playing the sport before you get to the national team.”
Again, Green knows of which he speaks.
“Making the national team takes a lot of hard work. Every year the team gets more and more competitive and harder and harder to retain your spot. It took me quite a long time to make the team. I’d been playing for about eight years before I finally made it to the team. It takes a lot of hard work.”
But hard work is what Green is all about. Hugh MacKinnon, who taught at G.P. Vanier when Green was there, recalls, “Byron was a typical, bright, hard-working, popular student who had a life-changing mountain bike accident when he was 16. His true character showed itself after the accident embracing this lifestyle and personal change.
“His positive outlook, fierce determination and character are what I remember. I have lots of admiration for this lad and I understand from the wheelchair rugby community he has become a legendary role model,” MacKinnon said.
Green says the national team was “in the back of his mind” when he took up the sport, but once he finished his civil engineering course at UBC, “I really got serious about it and started devoting my time towards that goal.”
That seriousness sees the B.C. members of the National team currently training six days a week at the Richmond Olympic Oval, a first-class facility that has been extremely accommodating to the players.
Green says his family has been extremely supportive of him, and gives a shout out to them all. “Especially my wife Alana,” who he met at Vanier.
Knowing what wheelchair rugby has done for him has made Green determined to give back so others will benefit. “(The sport has) benefited me hugely in my every day life. I think sport is important for everybody, but it’s super important for disabled people to get involved in a sport – it will have a tremendous positive, impact on your quality of life – in terms of physical health, and also meeting new people, hanging out and having a good time.
“Now that I’ve been part of the sport for a while it’s important to give back and encourage people to join up and enjoy wheelchair rugby. As part of that I help run a program out of G.F. Strong, an intro to wheelchair rugby.”
For his willingness to go above and beyond to help new athletes, Green was awarded the Canadian Wheelchair Sports Association’s 2013 Stan Stronge Award, given to an athlete with a strong sense of fairplay and a dedication to excellence.
“(Bryon) has earned a reputation as an intelligent, hard-working athlete who is the first to get to practice and the last to leave,” the CWSA notes.