Withrow’s on the ball

KNIGHTS OF THE RINK: Withrow Park’s masters-level ball hockey team will represent Canada at the World Ball Hockey Championships in September. They are one of two teams travelling to Pilzen, Czech Republic.

The World Ball Hockey Championships are seven months away.

Three members of a masters-level community team, Withrow Park Knights, sit in plush chairs around a fireplace.

There’s an orange glow from faux flames but there’s a sense of an après ski to their gathering at a Second Cup at Chester and Danforth.

Lance Hornby, 52, Manny da Luz, toe-dragging on 44, and David Valenta, 45 are warming up their excitement about their journey to Pilzen, Czech Republic in September.

“For me to be on the world stage with a maple leaf on my sweater, you’re not going to get that chance when you’re in your 50s,” Hornby said. “That’s big for me.”

They’re not misty, but there’s a sense of kinship among the men who play within a community of 190 adults. There are six teams in the men’s league, all named after the first expansion teams in the NHL. Last season they were named after the Original Six.

They play nearly all year round whether indoors or out. And Withrow Park is always full, with players swapped from team to team at season’s change.

“We’re not a bunch of knuckleheads. We are guys who actually get along, respect each other and recognize the next day we have to go to work and we need our limbs intact,” Valenta said. “We’re not going to take liberties with each other.”

Vocations for the league’s members include sports writer, lawyer, dentist, and even company CEOs. But what they do doesn’t mean as much as where they live.

“This is a local group of not just guys who are ball hockey players. These are friends,” Valenta said. “Actually I call this group a family because we spend so much time together.”

“It’s a matter of what team you play for, you go to the bar afterwards and talk to anyone on any team,” he added. “Over that time there’s been such a camaraderie that’s been built up.”

The Withrow Park Ball Hockey League was started in 1977 by James Plytas, though the first president has departed from the organization, several have picked up in his stead, forming a board in 1992.

Now, that same community-based organization is sending 23 men and a full staff including two general managers, a team doctor, head coach and strength and conditioning coach.

The process began in January 2011 and is ongoing as the men up their endurance, and by April will be pushing their limits for speed.

The trio is one of two Canadian teams vying for top spot at the international level.

Their fellow team and former national ball hockey player George Gortsos is on Canada’s team, while Hornby, da Luz and Valenta play for the community squad that rounds out eight teams.

Intriguingly, the team’s head coach, Chris Pellerin, is the first female to coach a men’s team on the national stage.

“It’s an honour to be coached by someone whose impact on the ball hockey scene is pretty well known,” da Luz said. “She’s the Canadian women’s coach, and the fact that she’s chosen, if I can use that word, to be with a bunch of middle-aged hacks is an honour for us.”

And she’s not taking any prisoners when it comes to their training for the big trip.
“She’s very strict but the guys give her 100 percent respect.”

Still, a squad with the average age of 47, there’s work to be done. Ball hockey is played on an unforgiving concrete pad.

“Most of the surfaces that we play on are cement based, it is more taxing on your lower extremities,” da Luz said. “In terms of the conditioning and the stamina you do see more injuries at our age.”

Hornby lauds his teammates for abilities.

“These are two of the better players in the league here (da Luz and Valenta), and for me sometimes it’s a struggle to keep up with them some nights,” he said. “Just imagine what some of these guys do on the world stage, especially former NHLers.”

Representing their community at the international level is like getting the gold medal to these men. Valenta was a kid when he first put stick to orange ball. As he grew up on Riverdale Avenue, so did the league.

Unfortunately for him after a certain age he was unable to play and university kept him busy.

Still he returned and has represented Canada at the international level before. For Hornby and da Luz, though, it’s a new experience.

“You’re not just representing your community but your country really, and being a 40-something-year-old man, how many 40-something-year-old men would get this experience?” da Luz said.

Hornby jokes, noting “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen is apropos for the soundtrack.

“There are going to be (butterflies),” Hornby says. “If they play the anthem at all …”

He trails off reminiscing about playing street hockey.

“When I was a kid and you’d play other streets,” da Luz shares his own childhood memory. “You’d go marching down the street with your equipment.

“They knew all the curves on the street so they could bank the ball off,” Hornby adds.
At Withrow Park, recreation is the glue that keeps a team together.

“The sports activities that go on — Withrow Park is a hub for sports,” da Luz said. “Forget about the ball hockey, there’s baseball, soccer, Frisbee football, skateboarding.

“I wouldn’t trade this area for any other community.”

And the results from such a neighbourhood bond:

“On a Saturday I take my family up to the Danforth and I might see him, or him,” Hornby said. “I will see at least four people.

“That’s the biggest thing behind the community.”

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