Field of Play: One fine day on 'The Rock' | Sports | CBC Sports

Field of Play: One fine day on 'The Rock'

Posted: Monday, April 14, 2014 | 11:07 PM

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St. John's provides visitors with spectacular scenery of a place affectionately called, “The Rock.” (Photo courtesy Scott Russell) St. John's provides visitors with spectacular scenery of a place affectionately called, “The Rock.” (Photo courtesy Scott Russell)

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Scott Russell experienced a personal awakening after visiting St. John's to co-host Newfoundland and Labrador's annual sports awards and Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
Recently, I ventured for the weekend to Newfoundland and Labrador to co-host their annual sports awards and Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

The event was held in St. John's, the capital city, and I couldn't have imagined a greater personal awakening in the place they affectionately call "The Rock."

As is the custom in Canada's youngest province, but then again one of its oldest cities, they've endured a wicked winter. And only now, in this exceedingly rugged and spectacular setting, is there any sign of relief beginning to appear on the horizon.

So on the morning of the ceremony, I took advantage of the milder temperatures, accompanied by the less than driving rain, and attempted a run.

My travels that day amounted to a sort of busman's tour of the unique and treasured space that has been reserved for sport and how it appeals to the sensibility of the people who live in these parts.

I jogged up to the top of Signal Hill, not on the paved road mind you, but along the craggy trail dodging little waterfalls and negotiating slippery rocks.

I got to the Cabot Tower, which was built in 1897, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Cabot landing in Newfoundland. It was near the spot where the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi first received a wireless radio signal transmitted from the other side of the ocean in 1901.

Spotting Cape Spear

As I looked out the four kilometres across the North Atlantic, I spotted Cape Spear, the eastern-most point of this vast and daunting continent. It was breathtaking and to understand that each year 400 brave souls run the Cape to Cabot 20k, and one of the world's toughest road races was almost an unfathomable concept. 

terry-fox_300.jpgNext I made my way down the mountain - quadriceps screaming - to the bottom of Temperance Street, near the mouth of the harbour. There, guarding the shore was a beautiful, weathered, bronze statue of Terry Fox. It was at that very same place that the iconic Canadian began his "Marathon of Hope" exactly 34 years ago on April 12, 1980.

I paused to look at the quotation which was clearly emblazoned on the wall behind the enduring image of the great man. It articulated a lesson which is all at once simple but true.
"I just wish people would realize that anything is possible if you try," Fox is reported to have said as he began his journey. "Dreams are made if people try."

Then it was out to Quidi Vidi Lake, a mile long body of water not far from the central part of the ancient city.

This is the locale where they gather to celebrate North America's oldest, annual, sporting event. In each and every year since 1816 (some historians say before), hearty oarsmen and women in six- member boats with coxswains have competed in what has always been known as the Royal St. John's Regatta.

The lasting monument to "The Rower," is perched just off the edge of the water and conjures up images of the supreme effort required by those who have strapped themselves into the fixed-seat racing shells over many decades.

The regatta supposedly unfolds on "...the first fine Wednesday in August." It's the Civic Holiday in St. John's but if the winds are too high to row safely then festivities are postponed to the next suitable occasion. 

This apparently moveable sporting feast regularly attracts 50,000 spectators who line the shores of the little lake to cheer on the boats from home as well as those who've come "from away" seeking bragging rights at Quidi Vidi.

That night at the Hall of Fame inductions, there were six local heroes of sport feted in front of a capacity crowd made up of nearly 400 folks who had gathered from every part of this gargantuan province.

In attendance there were municipal politicians, cabinet ministers, past premiers, doctors, lawyers, priests and business leaders. Also represented were mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, and the elders of countless communities. All of them had a connection to sport and the competitive turf of Newfoundland and Labrador which remained strong and central to their lives.

Hall of Famers

The new Hall of Famers included Colin Abbott, a softball slugger who had captured world championships with the Canadian team. Cross country skiing produced Gerry Rideout, a visionary who built trails which attracted the finest international Nordic athletes to Labrador's snow.

There was also Lee Churchill, a locally grown skier who had emerged from those very same courses to triumph over myriad and supposedly more qualified boys his own age from across the country at the 1999 Canada Winter Games.

There was a 91-year-old former track and field phenomenon named Max Kirby who moonlighted as a basketball player of some renown.

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Max might have shrunk in his advanced years but his exploits with a sporting club known as the "Church Lads Brigade" were legendary and he was once the fleetest man in Great Britain's oldest colony.

A hockey player by the name of Andy Sullivan was cast into the limelight that night. Sullivan had never participated in an organized fashion until he was well into his teenage years.

A fish plant worker from the Southern shore, he starred in the hotly contested provincial, senior league and once, as a 32-year-old, got a call up to appear for the old American Hockey League St. John's Maple Leafs. Over the course of a dozen or so games he astonished the much younger pros with his naturally honed talent.

"I first developed a passion for the game of hockey on the pond where I lived," Sullivan said in his gracious acceptance remarks. "I couldn't wait for the next Saturday to come so that I could play again."

Equally endearing was the last of the great Newfoundland athletes recognized that evening.  
Ray Will was born in the UK but he made Portugal Cove his home in the late 1970's. A runner, he competed in the master's category (40-44), and for the period 1978-82 went undefeated provincially. Over that span Will was the top ranked North American runner in his age group over five distances from 1,500m, to the marathon.

Distinguished coach

Upon retirement from competition, Ray Will distinguished himself as a coach at Memorial University in St. John's and delivered athletes to the world championships, as well as the Pan American, Commonwealth and Olympic Games.

As he stood at the podium and apologized for the obvious tremors of his Parkinson's disease, he distilled the significance of sport throughout his many adventures.

"Sport is not about life and death," he reckoned. "Nor is it often about most people's livelihood. Rather it's really just about what a person can possibly do."

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His words resonated throughout the room and everyone whose attention he'd so easily captured understood exactly what Ray Will meant.

As I reflected on the celebration that night it struck me that at the core that's why sport really matters in the first place.

The very pursuit of it produces home grown stars and legends.

They are seemingly ordinary people who've written lasting and extraordinary tales of accomplishment on the fields of play in their own backyard.

It was, it seems to me, well worth my while to spend that one fine and memorable day on "The Rock."

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