(CNN) — Greg Ozubko never thought he’d be tending goal at this point in his life. Not just because he’s 50, but because 16 years ago he was having so much pain in his hands and feet he couldn’t walk across a parking lot, let alone put his feet in a pair of skates or drop to his knees to stop a puck.
Like many Canadians, Ozubko started playing hockey as a kid. When he grew up he wanted to be Wayne Gretzky. He played through high school and college, but knew he wasn’t good enough to realize his NHL dreams. So he moved on in life. He started a graphics business, got married and settling down in Atlanta.
His hockey gear, it collected dust in the closet.
In 1998 he started having unexplained pain. It was so severe that nothing could touch his joints.
“Once the symptoms started they were pretty debilitating,” he remembers.
After a series of doctor’s visits and tests, he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.
Doctors were able to find a medication that worked for him. That was life changing.
By 2002, he felt so great that while watching his home NHL team, the Atlanta Thrashers, he made a decision. The team was horrible that year and in watching them struggle motivated him.
He would get back on the ice.
“One night it just flipped a switch and it just went, I wanna go do this again,” he says.
The next day Ozubko says he unearthed his old goalie gear from the 1980s. He dusted it off and headed to the rink.
He decided he wanted to be a goalie.
There was a learning curve though. The modern techniques goalies used were different from when he was a kid. He had to learn.
He must have been a quick study, because his style of playing caught the attention of some coaches along the way. They invited him to play in an elite group of hockey players in the Atlanta area. That led to an invitation to training camp for the minor league team called the Gwinnett Gladiators.
Ozubko made the cut and was tapped as the East coast hokey league team’s backup goalie. Quickly he was blocking shots from players half his age. He’s always ready to step in whenever one of the teams’ goalies is injured or when the team’s goalie would called up to the majors.
Today he’s retired from minor league play. But he still feels good enough to play. He fills in on goalie when they need one for team practice.
He mentors many of his much younger teammates and works as a player liaison.
That time playing with the Gladiators has left its mark. Ozubko remembers taking it all in as he dressed for his first professional game in November 2011. “It was a profound experience,” Ozubko says. His mission now is to remind the young guys how lucky they are to have landed a coveted spot on a team.
“When I first started doing this I was 47 and I never would have believed that I would have had an opportunity like this,” he says.
To him, his ability to play, even for a short amount of time, it is a true gift.
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