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Puslinch man takes on triathlons following pro hockey retirement

Bryan Little, who spent 12 seasons in the NHL, was introduced to triathlon while still playing hockey

When it became apparent Bryan Little’s NHL career was over, he decided to switch his athletic endeavours to triathlon.

Little, who was born in Edmonton, grew up in Cambridge and lives in Puslinch on a two-acre property near Puslinch Lake, thought he could get a little more serious about triathlon.

“When we moved out in the country I got a road bike and started getting into road bike just kind of for recovery mostly, because I was still playing hockey,” he said. “So I'd go on the weekends for a little bit.

“I kind of found out about triathlons through YouTube. Canadian Lionel Sanders had a popular YouTube video channel and I thought it looked really cool and he looked kind of crazy and I thought it would be something cool to try. I actually did my first sprint triathlon in Guelph when I was still playing hockey. I didn't train at all for it. I was going off my hockey training and hoping for the best and had a blast. I was kind of hooked so I decided that when I was done playing, I would kind of get into it a bit more and train for it seriously.”

Little’s pro hockey playing days came to an end in the 2019-2020 season when he was struck in the ear by a slapshot seven games after returning from a concussion suffered in a preseason game. While there were times when he felt he could return to play, he was advised not to do so.

“One of the things that was the toughest about it was that I felt fine,” he said. “It was just the unpredictable nature of what happens if I get hit really bad again. That was kind of the thing that kept me from playing again and believe me I saw a lot – I saw three or four specialists and none of them recommended playing contact sports again. It was tough but days like today when I kind of found something else to be passionate about, it definitely helps.”

Despite the early end to his pro hockey career, he looks on that career fondly.

“I got to live my dream,” Little said. “It was my dream to play in the NHL as a kid and it's all I ever wanted, and I got to play 12 seasons of it and have a decent career and put up some points and goals. Looking back the only tough pill to swallow is I never got the chance to play for the Cup. I was only in the playoffs three times and it definitely hurts looking back and seeing those missed opportunities and you know you get kind of, not jealous, but kind of envious of guys that have won it. It's still tough looking back and knowing you're never going to get a chance to lift it.”

A centre, Little played 843 games in the NHL, scored 217 goals and assisted on 304 others all for the same franchise. He was drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers, 12th overall, in the 2006 NHL draft and stayed with the team when it moved north to become the Winnipeg Jets. He was traded to the Arizona Coyotes in 2022 and will officially retire as a member of the Utah Hockey Club when his contract expires next month.

“After my contract got moved there, I never went there,” the 37-year-old said of Arizona.

“It's more just kind of a technicality thing being on their books. My heart was still in Winnipeg and I was still following those guys because I knew a lot of the guys on the team still. It's July that I'm officially retired so it'd be nice to be done with that.”

As for the triathlons, he actually started when he was still playing in the NHL.

“It's humbling for sure, especially the swim,” he said. “It was 750-metre swim so pretty short and I had to take a couple breaks and I was getting passed by a ton of people. As explosive as I felt and as good a shape as I felt, it was definitely humbling when you go out there and see people a lot older than you flying by you, so it's definitely a different kind of sport.”

Little, who trains with Guelph’s LPC triathlon group when he can, likes that there are three different disciplines in the sport.

“It was really different from the training I did for hockey,” he said. “I spent a lot of time in the gym, a lot of weights, a lot of short kind of burst-of-speed stuff. I always kind of wanted to get into the endurance stuff because it was so different than what I did before. I kind of wanted to get away from the gym because when I was done playing I was kind of done with being in the weight room a lot. I like how it's so different and the training is so different. It's almost kind of meditative when you're out there by yourself.”

Of the three disciplines – swimming, cycling and running – which does Little like the best?

“I'd say bike,” he answered. “I'd say that's probably my strongest, too, but I've come around to liking all three. I've always kind of liked running and swimming, I had a love/hate when I first started, but I've kind of enjoyed that now, too, as I've gotten better.”

Little started his season with a fourth-place finish at the Milton Subaru Triathlon at the beginning of the month. He was the top amateur.

He was also top amateur, second overall, in the Guelph Lake II Triathlon last year on the Labour Day weekend, finishing behind Guelph pro triathlete Taylor Reid.

“I don't really have any goals in terms of that I want to come this place or this place,” Little said. “I just want to see how good I can get pushing myself. I love just trying to improve on something I'm not very good at so I'm gonna keep doing it and keep trying to improve as much as I can and see where it goes.”

Due to a promise he made to his wife, Little keeps his triathlon workouts to a part-time basis.

“I'm pretty much a stay-at-home dad right now. I told my wife when I was done (with pro hockey) that I would. This is kind of secondary. It's a hobby,” he said.

As far as the triathlons he competes in, Little has pretty much kept it to the sprint triathlons.

“I've never done an Olympic(-distance triathlon),” he said. “I've got to look at how close, if I did do it, how close it would be to the 70.3 I'm doing. I just don't know how sore I'd be after the Olympic. I get more sore, I think, than the average person after these races, especially running. Even sprints I'm a little bit sore for a few days so we'll see how close it is.”

While some triathletes compete almost every weekend, Little limits his competitions to an average of about one a month. While he hasn’t decided whether he’ll be back to compete at the Guelph Lake II triathlon late this summer, his main event of the year is to be next month’s Ironman 70.3 Musselman in Geneva, N.Y.

“Usually four or five (a season) depending on how I'm feeling,” he said. “The last two years I've done four. It just depends on how I'm feeling. I usually get niggles and stuff. I'm pretty injury prone on running and stuff kind of creeps up from when I played with knees and shoulders and stuff. I think at least four, hopefully.”