While Brad Gushue impresses the sporting nation at the country's biggest curling event in Edmonton this week, another group of Newfoundland and Labrador athletes are proudly sporting the red and white at a world championship tournament half a world away.
Six local softball players are part of Team Canada at the International Softball Federation's 2013 world championship in Auckland, New Zealand. Stephen Mullaley of Freshwater, Sean Cleary and Brad Ezekiel of Harbour Main, Sean Whitten from Petty Harbour, Ryan Boland of Goulds and Jason Hill from St. John’s are key members of Canada’s senior men's team.
"In Canada, you have the whole country to pick players from," Mullaley said in a Friday night/Saturday morning phone interview from Auckland, prior to the team's playoff game against Argentina, "and we’ve got six players playing in the biggest (softball) tournament in the world from one peninsula. They come from Freshwater to St. John's. One strip of road, one peninsula out of the whole country and you've got six quality ball players."
I don't ever remember a time when this province had as many players on a true national team. (Maybe rugby, but I don't think so?) And to have all six guys contributing to the success is an even better feeling.
Lots of team spirit
These guys helped Canada to a first place finish in the round robin portion of the tournament with a 6-1 record. Cleary pitched a five-inning perfect game in one contest. Boland hit a clutch, three-run homer to set the stage for Ezekiel's extra inning blast in another. Hill played some third base and even pitched a win. Whitten pitched well, and Mullaley — the MVP of the Canadian senior men's championship, where he had 12 hits, 10 of them for home runs in an awesome display of power — contributed offensively, defensively, and off the field, where his sense of humour, personality and exuberance shone through.
"Whether I'm out joking around with the guys, or sat in my hotel room with my eyes closed thinking about the game, the game is going to come," Mullaley. "In my opinion, it's better to be loose — focused, but loose — than all bound up and stressed out.
"We go out and play hard and leave it all on the field, but we want to do it the right way, with a smile on our faces. We like to have a laugh along the way, too."
Keeping things light
To that end, Mullaley and Jeff Ellsworth have created Team Canada's own sports program, Newfie TSN. (Whatever you may think of the word Newfie, it's clear it's still being used widely by mainland Canadians.) Each day, a player is interviewed via a small video camera, in a hotel room with a whiteboard for a background, and the end result posted to Facebook. There, hundreds of fans like it or comment on it, or offer encouraging words to the players so far removed from their home country.
For Mullaley, the video skits get the fans engaged with the team, but also allow the players to feel the support from home. There are some serious questions, and some that are off the wall, but the skits make the players relaxed.
"The biggest thing with this is what got you on Team Canada and what has given you success in the past is the way you play on your club teams. You're loose, you're relaxed, and you're joking around with the boys. Sometimes on Team Canada — and I've been here a few times now — putting CANADA on your chest brings more pressure.
"If we can do things to loosen things up, get them in the frame of mind where they feel like they're playing club ball with their buddies, just go out and play seven innings, then we have a better chance of being successful than saying 'Oh my God, I'm playing for Canada!'
"It's the same game of ball. It's just getting in the right frame of mind to play your best."
That frame of mind was tested in the team's opening playoff game loss to Venezuela, but Mullaley wasn't too concerned Friday night when we spoke. Unfortunately, despite the optimism among the team members — the road to gold just got a bit longer, Mullaley said — Canada fell 2-1 to Argentina late Friday night and was eliminated.
Despite the disappointment, Mullaley is proud of the impact the Newfoundlanders had.
"Do we want to contribute? Yes," he answered. "But we all realize we're here for a reason. If you weren't a good ballplayer, you wouldn't be on this team. To see the Newfoundlanders contribute, yes it's great to see. We're glad to be getting the call to be in the lineup."
And making Newfoundlanders proud along the way.
Follow Don on Twitter @PowerPlay27