What is the Ales Hrebesky Memorial, and why are hundreds and hundreds of players traveling from all over the world to be there every year? What on Earth is this thing? Every year we see more and more videos, pictures and stories coming out of the Czech Republic about some lacrosse tournament. Why? Why is this getting so much attention?
That was my question back in 2013. Surely, there are other lacrosse tournaments in Europe. What is so darn important about this one? I was sitting in my room about to graduate from college, and I saw some article or video or something or other that Lacrosse All-Stars had put up immediately following the event. I read an article, watched a video, and probably went on with my day. That was my fifth year in college, and I had roughly twenty days or so before graduation, and it’s fair to say I was pretty much a walking 23-year- old existential crisis.
I didn’t think about it again. Not until that following March. Leading up to that March, I had done roughly seven different jobs, lived in three states, totaled a car, and found out what a real existential crisis was supposed to look like.
That April I found myself on a plane bound for the Czech Republic. I was a world-traveling pioneer in my mind. I was out to go explore the unknown. That was four years ago, I’ve been to Prague five times now, and I haven’t missed an Ales Hrebesky Memorial yet.
So what’s the big deal? What happens that week that holds such an attraction over hundreds and hundreds of players all across the world? Surely, there are closer tournaments? Surely, some of these guys have wives, children, school, jobs, or SOME other facet of their life that needs their attention. How does a week of lacrosse emit such an allure?
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I know the answer. I think I do, anyways. It’s just sort of hard to explain. I’m trying to figure out the answer and explain it at the same time. Two plus two is four. Water is two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen. There isn’t really a simple answer here. I can’t tell you the Memorial is great because x or y.
It’s not the food or the beer or the amazing box lacrosse. It’s not the friends that you’ve known a collective ten days of your life that you feel like you’ve known forever. It isn’t the little kids running around in hockey helmets asking you to sign their lacrosse ball. It’s not watching the night game from the rooftop under the lights. It isn’t about the transcendence of language and borders to create friendships.
It’s all of it. If you took out one of those things, it wouldn’t be the Ales Hrebesky Memorial I know and love. If you took away the awesome locals who come out in droves to watch games all day long, it wouldn’t be the same. If ONE of the twenty-one teams didn’t return next year, I would have friends that I would miss in 2018.
What other tournament can you say that? Where you quite literally have a friend on every single roster, year in and year out. And if you have one friend on a roster going into the year, you know damn well you’re leaving the weekend with six or seven new buddies you shared a laugh, two beers, and a pork-steak.
If it weren’t for the army of teenage volunteers, it wouldn’t be the same. These kids in yellow shirts are the real champions. As a player, either you’re playing, or you’re relaxing and having a good time. These twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen-year- old kids are changing trash bags, carrying tables in and out of buildings, and more importantly; they’re watching EVERY GAME. The LCC guys know what they’re doing. These kids are learning infinite lessons from seeing an endless slew of lacrosse.
The results are tangible. Honza Polak joined the Glasgow Clydesiders as a fifteen-year- old because he wanted to play and we needed a runner. Three or four local Czech juniors played with the infamous Boston Megamen this year and were contributing. One of the kids is actually going to play junior hockey and lacrosse in Canada through connections made at the AHM. (That’s actually a really cool story and we’ll be having more on that one soon!)
That first day, when they’re firing up the barbecue pit, but it isn’t ready yet… the anxious crowd is a sight to see. Twenty grown men STARING and watching as soon as that first pile of sausage and chicken and grilled cheese things hit the grill. You’ll walk away with $2-5 less American dollars in your pocket and you’ll have the best meal you’ve ever had… until like an hour later and you’re back for more.
The food, the beer… it’s all right there. Maybe that’s it. Everything is right there. A lot of tournaments are spread across multiple fields or even multiple sites, with guys needing to go back to hotels to shower or change or put their gear. This is an all-in- one type facility, and you really don’t ever need to leave. The only reason you ever really need to leave is to take the four-minute walk to the grocery store to get some bananas and a candy bar or to get a billion more crinkles out of the ATM.
The “locker room” is the jungle that the gymnasium turns into. 21 teams and aside from the four teams downstairs and the home team, the remaining sixteen teams all make it happen on two levels in a modest sized gym. The Polish guys sleep on the stage all weekend. At any given time of day there are five or six guys taking naps on padded mats. I’m sure that things have been taken by mistake or lost, but speaking to the brotherhood of the tournament, everyone is completely fine leaving their gear all over the place because nobody steals stuff. What tournament in America can you honestly leave your stuff all over and nobody will steal it? You’re stick won’t last fifteen minutes sometimes.
Maybe that’s it. The brotherhood. It’s been said once, it’s been said a hundred times. It’s a small community, and it doesn’t matter what jersey you’re wearing, you’re part of the family. If you might think that this comradery might lessen the intensity on the floor, you’d be doubly wrong. The only way these few days can effectively breed amazing #friendship is BECAUSE you’re willing to bring your A game.
After that whistle blows, I’m not going to thank you and buy you a beer if you took it easy on me. I came from the other side of the world god dammit. I came here to get crosschecked and throw my (unimpressive) weight around. If you give me your best, and I give you my best, then no matter what that scoreboard looks like, we had ourselves a game we can be proud of.
When you play your heart out, and you have a blast doing it, people notice. My second AHM, there were two kids behind our bench. They wanted high-fives and fist-bumps every time I came off. At the end of the week, I gave one kid my shirt and his brother got my hat. That next year, the one kid is wearing that hat still, even though it looks like his dog got it and then spit it out right in front of a lawn mower. I forget what I gave the boys that year, but I couldn’t let him wear a ratty hat! (pot calling the kettle black)
I got talking with the mother and father of the boys at some point. The father, Wayne, knew more about my goals and assists than I did, and the mother, Kristina, must have been one of the nicest women I’d ever met. I saw them later on that summer at the first ever Frank Mencshner Cup.
When I was there, we had a couple more beers together and they offered for me to stay with them for the coming Memorial. I said sure.
This year was a special one for me in a lot of new ways. In addition to staying with Wayne, Kristina and their three kids Sophie, Dan and Max, my own brother was coming out to Prague for the first time. Not that the Boatel doesn’t have it’s own special set of charms, it does, but it was amazing to stay with such a kind family up in the hills overlooking the town. From the terrace I could actually see the flags flying over the box.
I think my Dad watched some of my games via YouTube, but I KNOW that Max and Dan were watching every single one of my games. My biggest fans are two 8 and 10 year old boys in the Czech Republic. That’s kinda cool. That’s really cool.
I don’t really know if I’m getting the point across. I can’t tell if I’m conveying a message that this isn’t the biggest or best because of one reason or another, but it’s truly a special experience for a million reasons. Maybe I’m getting there. I can tell stories about singing in the bar or shenanigans at the Chinese Disco. I can tell you about amazing games between the Gaels and Custodes. There are awesome teams every year where old men and young kids are playing on the same teams. There are always American field players who come over who’ve never played box before. That’s always a treat – seeing Germans or Slovaks who picked up a stick four years ago giving pointers and tips to an American who’s been playing since he was four.
There was that time I lost my phone and passport. The Australian playing for Sweden. The Italian playing for Scotland. There are a hundred stories every year. In major events and tournaments, you might miss some of them. You might miss a lot. Here, if you sit in the bleachers with your beer and schnitzel, you don’t miss a thing.
There’s an American ex-fighter pilot who teaches chemistry at the university in Prague. His name is Curt (Maybe it’s with a K, I have no idea), and this guy doesn’t miss a single game all weekend! He’s there promptly at eight am every morning with beer in hand, and he’s there until they shut down the bar. He must have twenty-five a day, I swear, but my friend Kurt (shotgun approach) can have a beer with a perfect stranger and tell them what jersey number they are, what team they play for and definitely tell you how well you played or what plays you made that he liked. It’s amazing, honestly.
It’s guys like Curt and families like Wayne and Kristina’s. It’s the two dozen kids running around with sticks. The way they light up when you go out and have a catch with them during the kids clinic. The look in their eyes when you toss them some old shorts or a tee that’s been living in your bag for a year. How the bartenders smile and hug you when they see you come back every year.
It’s a village. A complete and total village and when you’re there, you’re part of it. You can go to a concert or a festival and you’re a spectator. This isn’t so easy. Here, you’re a participant in a tiny little world. A symphony of a thousand players. My part isn’t your part, but without your part, my part wouldn’t sound quite the same. I need all my friends to be there, and the friends I haven’t made as well.
Part of the fun is that your circle is always getting bigger, and tighter at the same time. I’m going to end this little piece now. Partly because I’ve realized that if you aren’t looking up airline tickets to Prague by now, I’ve either failed to get my point across or you just don’t get it. I could cop out and say, “if you’ve been there, you know”, but that’s too easy. If you haven’t been there, it’s something I want for you to experience. It isn’t a secret club or sect. It’s not some elite club with a set membership.
This is a bizarre little mashup of a thousand strangers turned friend turned family. I tried, but I don’t know if I can really explain exactly why I consider a small little town in the countrysideof the Czech Republic to be one of the places I hold nearest and dearest in my heart.
See you in Prague.