Angelo Esposito knew it was time to hang up his skates three years ago after a conversation he couldn’t remember in the back of an ambulance in Czech Republic.
The one-time hockey phenom and first-round NHL draft pick, by then playing professionally in Ceske Budejovice after a string of no-luck injuries, had just suffered a fourth career concussion.
Esposito turned to his fiancee, Laura, to ask how he’d looked on the ice. She told him he played well. Two minutes later, he asked again. Her answer didn’t change. Two minutes after that, he asked once more.
“And when she told me this story… I was like, you know what, it’s enough,” Esposito told HuffPost Canada. “It’s time to turn the page and… figure out what’s next in life.”
On Saturday, Esposito married the woman who was by his side that night. Instead of a honeymoon, they’ll be trying to get him elected the Conservative MP for the Montreal-area riding of Alfred-Pellan in a federal election campaign to be called any day now.
“I owe her big time,” Esposito said, laughing about the circumstances. The wedding was planned before he decided to jump into the political arena. “Put it this way, if she asks for me something, I’m going to have to make sure I go through with it.”
Esposito, now 30, is one of several athletes who will be attempting to win a seat in the House of Commons for the first time this fall, many facing long odds. He’s trying to unseat Liberal MP Angelo Iacono, who was first elected in 2015. The riding has also been held by the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP at points over the last 15 years.
Late last month, Conservatives announced Sylvie Fréchette, a 1992 Olympic gold medallist in synchronized swimming, as the party’s star candidate in the Quebec riding of Rivière-du-Nord, currently held by the Bloc. Swimmer Philippe Gagnon, a Paralympic gold medallist, is running in the Jonquière riding held by the NDP. Olympic cyclist Lyne Bessette is seeking to run for the Liberals in the riding of Brome-Missisquoi, where the incumbent Grit isn’t reoffering.
Decorated kayaker Adam van Koeverden, who boasts perhaps the most national name recognition, is running for the Liberals in the Greater Toronto Area riding of Milton, represented since 2008 by deputy Conservative leader Lisa Raitt.
Van Koeverden won four Olympic medals in four different Olympic Games, including gold in 2004. He was also awarded the Lou Marsh Trophy that year as Canada’s top athlete. He carried Canada’s flag at the closing ceremony in Athens 15 years ago and, again, at the opening ceremony in Beijing in 2008.
“I wasn’t much of an athlete growing up,” he told HuffPost in between door-knocking this summer. “I ran cross-country because I don’t think you can possibly be told not to run cross-country.”
In 1995, his mother Beata saw an ad in the local Oakville Beaver newspaper for the Burloak Canoe Club, stating “Future Champions Wanted.” She signed her son up and, training there under the direction of coaches and mentors, the rest was history.
Van Koeverden, now 37, says he knew the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil would be his last. He finished first in the B final consolation race, ninth overall in the K-1 (kayak singles) 1000-metre.
From the archives: Adam Van Koeverden on his training ahead of the Rio Olympics. Story continues below.
“I posted the second fastest time of the day and I was satisfied that my performance was good, despite the fact that I was still in ninth place,” he said. “And I realized that if that’s my attitude towards winning… then I think maybe it’s time to hang it up.”
‘I don’t do easy things’
But van Koeverden’s competitive drive is evident when asked about taking on Raitt, a former cabinet minister and Tory leadership aspirant who would be a lock for another senior role if Conservatives form government.
“I don’t do easy things,” he said. “I took this on because it’s something that I can achieve and because I think I can win.”
Van Koeverden says he hears a lot of complaints at the doors about Ontario Premier Doug Ford, expected to be a key focus of discussion for Grit candidates in Canada’s biggest province. Ontario voters has gotten a “sneak peek of the Conservative agenda” with Ford’s cuts to public services, he says.
Less than 40 kilometres south of Milton, the Tories are hoping former Hamilton Tiger-Cat Peter Dyakowski can help them upset NDP MP Scott Duvall in the riding of Hamilton Mountain. It’s been 40 years since the riding elected a Tory MP.
The six-foot-five former offensive lineman retired from the Canadian Football League in 2018 after 11 seasons, all but one with Hamilton. He says canvassing voters has already helped him shed 45 pounds from his playing days.
“I’m a feather-light 280 right now,” he told HuffPost this summer.
A Vancouver native, he found football at age 15 and punched his ticket to famed Louisiana State University on a football scholarship, where he was coached by “the greatest of all-time” in Nick Saban and was part of a national championship team in 2003.
Dyakowski says he didn’t intend to stay in Steeltown for long after he was drafted by the Ti-Cats in 2006.
“I said to myself, I’m just going to play out my first contract and as soon as I’m a free agent, I’m going to sign with the (B.C.) Lions,” he said. “By the time I’d played out my first contract, I’d fallen in love with the city, I’d met my soon-to-be wife. I had a great thing going. It was my team. And there was never any question that I could play anywhere else.”
Hamilton let him put down roots and start a family in a line of work that’s usually quite transient. He and his wife, Rachel, now have two daughters: Louise, 3, and 11-month-old Helena. He thinks that serving as a local MP would go some way in “repaying the debt” he owes to the city.
Dyakowski regrets only that he couldn’t capture a Grey Cup, despite making it to the CFL finals in 2013 — where he blew out his knee before halftime — and 2014, which he describes as “another almost.”
The 35-year-old says he always had an interest in politics. He served on the CFL Players’ Association, including a stint as treasurer of the players union. Yet he never imagined running for office so soon.
“I’ve always had a huge belief in the necessity of community and public service,” he said. “And to have a chance to go to Ottawa and represent everybody here, to give us a voice and get results for Hamilton… it’s powerful.”
In sports, the athletes who are able to park their egos and work as part of a team are the ones who have the longest careers, he says. His old position — an often unsung role that meant sacrificing his body to protect the quarterback and create holes for the offense — has also taught him things he hopes to take with him.
“You learn to be satisfied and to take fulfillment from the success you contribute to,” he said.
Dyakowski did get his moment in the spotlight when he was crowned “Canada’s Smartest Person” on a CBC reality competition in 2012. Dyakowski says he took part in the contest “almost on a whim and it turned out great.” He also competed on “Jeopardy!” in 2014, finishing in third place.
Dyakowski doesn’t think he’s an underdog in Hamilton Mountain, despite the Tories finishing third in the riding four years ago.
“I do know that I have a lot of work ahead of me… and I like that. It’s a challenge and I’ve never shied away from a challenge in my life.”
On Monday, Dyakowski and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer took in the Labour Day Classic together in Hamilton, where the Ti-Cats rallied to beat rival Toronto Argonauts. Scheer, a Saskatchewan Roughriders fan, was decked out in black and yellow.
Esposito admits to feeling a little lost after he walked away from his sport. He suspects many other athletes feel the same way. While he won a Memorial Cup as a junior and scored the goal that gave Canada gold at the World Junior Hockey Championships in 2009 — all the more sweet because he was cut from the team three prior times — the scoring centre never got to lace up in the NHL. The Pittsburgh Penguins drafted him 20th overall in 2007.
“Everything happens for a reason and as much as I was getting injured, it just didn’t work out,” he said. “I come from a family where if one door closes, you always have to work hard and try to make something happen. And that’s what I’m doing right now.”
Esposito says that during his playing days, his dad made sure he didn’t blow his money on things such as luxury cars. It led to some arguments along the way but proved to be the right call once Esposito got involved in real estate investment. He used the money he saved during his playing career to help purchase several apartment buildings that he manages.
He says that while his family has voted for the Liberals in the past, they have come to see the Tories as a better fit. The party started recruiting him in January.
“The Conservative values… they’re what I believe in. They’re all about helping families, it’s all about balancing the budget, and obviously helping small and medium businesses.”
Likewise, Dyakowski said that while he has “political views all over the map,” he thinks Tories have the best approach for making life more affordable for families. He’s also happy to tout Scheer’s climate plan — which lacks emissions targets and has been panned by some climate experts — because of its focus on green energy technology.
For van Koeverden, the Liberals were the only choice. He considers himself both fiscally conservative and socially liberal, and says he believes in the prime minister.
“I believe in values around progress, values of diversity and inclusion and equality,” he said. “And I see those reflected in the Liberal Party of Canada in quite stark contrast to others.”
In a campaign video he released in July, he spoke about how there are good ideas on both the left and right side of the political spectrum. Liberals, he told HuffPost, are “well-positioned” to collaborate with both parties on the left who push for things such as universal pharmacare, and those on the right who champion the importance of individual choice.
The issue of housing affordability hits close to home for van Koeverden, who lived in a co-operative home in Oakville with his single mom and younger brother after his parents divorced. He now lives in Milton with Cairo, a dog he rescued from Egypt.
“I grew up in community housing,” he said. “I didn’t just go there for a couple of years.”
He says the two Liberals running point on the national housing strategy, Jean-Yves Duclos, the federal minister of families, children and social development, and his parliamentary secretary Adam Vaughan, are his mom’s favourite people in Canada these days.
“There’s a large percentage of society that should never have to worry about paying off a mortgage and they shouldn’t have to be paying off somebody else’s either in order to have a safe place to live.”
He also believes that politics could use more sportsmanship, recounting how in the world in which he comes from, athletes not only shake hands but often eat together on race days.
“I respect everybody who has an ambition to represent their community, regardless of political stripe. And I think Canadians would appreciate a government that is more collaborative and less combative,” he said. “People working across party lines for solutions rather than just slinging mud and constantly making it look like the other guy or the other party is evil or out to get somebody or negligent in their duties. And clearly that’s not the case.”
Asked what issues they might want to champion in Ottawa, all three mentioned opportunities for youth.
Esposito, who stays close to hockey by working as a skills development coach with local players, says he wants to promote the importance of staying active.
“I found my passion in hockey and I want them to find their passion, whether it’s in hockey, ballet, music, politics, whatever it is,” he said.
Dyakowski said he will push to bring back the child fitness tax credit scrapped by the Liberals in 2017.
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“One of the biggest public health challenges that we’re facing as a nation going forward is sedentary lifestyles, childhood obesity, the pull of technology,” he said. “And being able to help bring organized sport to families who might not otherwise be able to afford it, that’s something that I really want to push.”
Van Koeverden, who has volunteered for charities such as Right to Play and the Special Olympics, says he wants to work to ensure everybody across Canada has access to sport and play opportunities.
“Sport changed my life,” van Koeverden said. “Sport made my life what it is today.”
Esposito says he can already see parallels between politics and the game he fell in love with long ago.
“Honestly, it’s like a hockey season. One day at a time, each day is a new game.”
And crunch time, he says, is inching closer.