By David Martin
Each year, for 39 straight years, over 100 teams converge on two small towns in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York for the largest rugby tournament in the United States. The towns are Saranac Lake and Lake Placid and the event is the CanAm Tournament.
Over three days from July 27 through July 29, old boys, including an over 60’s match, men, women, premier and social sides, youth teams and a U.S. national team all took to the 11 fields in both towns for fun and competitive rugby in fields in both Saranac and Lake Placid, the small mountain village that gave the world the Olympic Winter games in 1932 and 1980, the latter games, still famous for the so-called Miracle on Ice of the 1980 U.S. hockey team gold medal. While the town still trades on its Olympic glory and history, for this weekend, both towns become RugbyTown.
“There are people now planning next summer around it,” said Jay Annis, the tournament director for the past seven years. “Teams come back every year. Being a good competitive tournament keeps teams coming back and I bet a lot of teams are saying one of these years we are going to win.”
“This weekend just has it all,” said Jeff “Stax” Carrington, who drove up from Fairfax, Va., to play for the Virginia Cardinals in his fourth CanAm Tournament. “You get to play great rugby, play with and against old friends and teammates and the mountains, it’s just beautiful.”
While some teams come for the chance to play great rugby, some teams just come for fun. One of those teams was the South Buffalo Sinners, a woman’s rugby club that raised money for the tournament by selling what proved to be popular team calendars, with the ladies dressed, or more correctly, tastefully undressed, but with well placed rugby balls and boots where shorts and jerseys might usually be. The calendars and the team, were certainly a hit of the tournament.
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“We came up here to play and yeah, to party,” said Laurie Pollinger, the team’s captain and founder, who hatched the idea for the calendars. “I enjoy my non-clothed freedom and we have one helluva good looking team.” Pollinger said when she suggested the fundraising idea, her teammates got immediately on board and called the idea, “awesome.”
To expand on the idea, the ladies got a new team kit designed to look like German beer frau’s. In part, the idea stemmed from the South Buffalo men’s team that ordered up team kit to look like lumberjacks. Needless to say, the men’s and women’s teams from South Buffalo were pretty distinctive.
Surprisingly, South Buffalo wasn’t the only team of lumberjacks at CanAm this year. The Worchester Rugby Club from Massachusetts kicked around a few ideas before they came up with a lumberjack theme too. The back featured the quote, “And I’m Ok” a reference to the Monty Python song.
“I was playing and then I just looked around and we were playing in them and everyone’s dressed like a lumberjack, it was pretty cool,” said Greg Whelan, the captain on his third CanAm. “A lot of guys asked us if we had extras to sell…next year.”
He said this year the team all camped together, a few girlfriends included, and they brought and had nightly barbecues and are already thinking about a new kit design for next year.
This year, 12 states and two countries were represented on Team Pretty, a tournament side of women mostly from New England who have been a CanAm staple for the past four years. Team Pretty shows that while everyone naturally hopes to play well, just attending the CanAm tournament is reward enough.
“We were born with the name, Team Pretty as a bit of a vain joke,” said Susan Ely, one of the Team Pretty founders. “It's evolved a lot since then. The goal now is always to play "pretty rugby" and have fun on the field. Saranac is always special, because it's such a large and fun tournament. Our theme this year was Peter Pan, with our saying "Pretty never grows up" because how many rugby players struggle to grow up? A lot.” The ladies had a good showing this year, winning three games but losing in the semi-final.
One of the perennial teams that attend CanAm are the Olde Girls, who this year lost to a team called My Big Fat Gay Wedding, a collection that included many former members of the New York Rugby Club that won two national championships. Anchoring the team were newlyweds Annie Collier and Lisa Lake who were married Friday night and used the tournament as their honeymoon. They lost to Beantown in an exciting final match, capturing second place in the women’s premier division.
In the premier men’s division, Mystic River scored the first try and ran hard at Brockport who got in three points before the half in a close final. But Mystic River prevailed winning 20-16 in a good hard match.
The premier division is one area that the tournament organizers hope to improve on next year and have tossed around different ideas including offering cash rewards. They are also going to offer up an over 55 division. They also have plans for marking next year’s 40th anniversary with special awards for teams that have returned year after year. Organizers say about 80 percent of the teams return to the tournament.
Pam Gouws plays for the Olde Girls and has been attending CanAm for several years, this year she brought the team she coaches, Severn River in Maryland to the tournament. They responded by winning the women’s club division, defeating Saratoga 29-0 in their first trip.
“I explained to the team captain's that I thought that the Can Am offered a great opportunity for the team to kick start their season in a high gear,” Gouws said. “Both captains agreed and they set in motion the ability for the team to compete in the Can Am.”
The competition begins on Friday or old boys day as it’s now known. The Schenectady Reds, who attended the first CanAm, won the over 35’s. The Green Mountain Geezers took the over 45’s championship with your author’s Washington Area Rugby Touring Side winning the consolation, anchored by your author at second row, with Troy Benson and Jeff Weston sharing the load. Proving that some old boys will do anything to make it to the tournament, WARTS teammate Lee Coogle, a private pilot flew up in his own Cessna from Virginia.
If the tournament starts with old boys, it was fitting this year that the tournament ended with young women. The last game featured the USA U-20’s women going up against a selected group of Canadian women and winning handily.
Nichole Meyette is one of the tournament organizers and says part of what makes the tournament work is the amazing cooperation of the town of Saranac Lake. She said the mayor and the local businesses totally support the event. She added that even though the tournament in some ways almost seems to run itself, they are always looking to improve.
“You gotta come to CanAm,” she said. “If you want to see and experience a weekend were over 100 teams come to play rugby in this great atmosphere come. Teams come because they want to be here and enjoying it all, it’s a great weekend and until you have seen it and experienced it you really can’t appreciate it.”
David Martin, played for the WARTS in this year’s CanAm Tournament and for the Mystic River Hombres. He is the author of “The Hooligan’s Table, The Rugby Player’s Cookbook. Check it out and purchase it online at www.therugbycookbook.com
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