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Nova Scotia Privateers Photo: Martin Bouda Ales Hrebesky Memorial 2018

Newcomer’s Ode to the Aleš Hřebeský Memorial

Justin was a complete foreigner to box lacrosse, let alone the Aleš Hřebeský Memorial. Once the world’s most unique lacrosse (and potentially sports overall) experience put it’s grips on the newbie, a life was changed over the course of four days.

Hunched silhouettes lined the balcony’s cliff, eager to edge as close to the action as possible from three stories up.

I chose a body and joined the row next to it.

“What a game this will be, huh?” I inquired the stranger. We were about to witness the second semifinal of the Aleš Hřebeský Memorial between the reigning champions and home team LC Custodes (LCC) and challengers Nova Scotia Privateers.

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He turned, the light washing over half his face, the rest obscured by his flat bill, and agreed. We briefly discussed the first semifinal, a 7-1 victory for Tel Aviv LC over Alberta Warriors that saw Tel Aviv’s starting goalie and head coach tossed and a teenager step into net cold and stand tall to close the game, before introductions.

It was also Tanner Fetch’s first time at the tournament. He came from Saskatoon to play with the London Knight, and like many of the players, he stuck around to experience the Memorial as a spectator.

We stayed locked on to the scene sprawls in front of us as we spoke. The local crowd swallowed the stands, enveloping the oval battlefield soon to see war. Spruces surrounded all sides, the green giants absorbing much of the illumination. Quaint two-story homes protected the perimeter, enclosing every edge of the arena like a fortress, the corners of the triangle roofs dotting the skyline. Small hills faintly formed the horizon, a bright moon patiently awaiting the faceoff from its skybox.

I asked Fetch what he thought of the event. He straightened his back and outstretched his arms like Christ the Redeemer overlooking the activity below. He paused, the scene sinking into his soul.

“Look around, dude.”

The quiet village of Radotín is a suburban-like town only a few train stops away from the center of Prague in Prague 16, a district in the southwest side of the city. Roughly eight thousand people make up Radotín, inhabiting pentagon homes often alternating among shades of orange, yellow and gray. You if you were airdropped in Radotín with no explanation, you couldn’t tell you were mere minutes away from one of Central Europe’s biggest cities.

In a country where soccer and hockey are king, Radotín represents a four square-mile bubble where lacrosse reigns supreme.

At the end of every April, thousands of lacrosse’s largest lovers descend on the village for the Aleš Hřebeský Memorial, which celebrated its silver birthday in 2018. The tournament has steadily grown through the years and become not only one of the premier box lacrosse tournaments in Europe, but the entire world. Players come from across Europe, North America and Asia to meet in the tiny town.

The tournament earned its namesake from former LC Custodes star Aleš Hřebeský, who was hit and killed by a drunk driver while waiting at a bus stop in 1993. His club together an event in his honor that didn’t become international until 2001 and the field has slowly expanded, currently standing at 24 teams. The waiting list to enter is long, and no team nor player wants to cede a coveted spot.

Ales Hrebesky memorial 2018 lacrosse czech republic photo: Miroslav Šach
Custodes in action Day 1 against Alberta. Photo: Miroslav Šach

Every year, the locals come to support their tournament, but they particularly show when the home team takes the field. LCC Wolves, the town’s junior team, draw a crowd, but when the senior team LC Custodes plays, thousands pack the arena to the point where even standing room is limited.

As I watched the semifinal between LC Custodes and the Privateers from the clubhouse’s balcony with many of the tournament’s players, Tel Aviv LC attackman Eric Fischer tapped me on the shoulder.

“Look,” he said, pointing to a home directly east of the balcony and slightly set back from the arena. I followed his finger and saw a man and his son leaning out of their top-floor window, straining to see the action on the field like Vatican-goers hoping to catch a glimpse of the Pope. In the background, the mother cooked dinner and prepared the table.

From his office perched atop the clubhouse in the arena’s clouds, Ondrej Mika maestros the event. Mika is the long-time tournament manager, and his omnipotent orchestration of the Memorial is impressive.

Mika is a local, born and raised in Radotín. The 43-year-old played for LC Custodes and in the Memorial for many years and was a friend and teammate to Hřebeský. All the work he does is for the people who pack the pews every April.

“The community is our big advantage here,” said Mika. “There’s quite strong local patriotism here. All Custodes and Wolves players are local, and the local community supports them.”

Ondrej Mika Ales Hrebesky memorial 2018 lacrosse czech republic photo: marek stor shutterlax.com
Ondrej Mika. Photo: Marek Stor / Shutterlax.com

During Custodes matches, prayers of, “RAD-O-TĺN, RAD-O-TĺN” permeate the palace. On the south end, children and teenagers loiter and cheer, sometimes carrying around their own lacrosse sticks and playing catch with friends.

Lacrosse and the Memorial have also opened possibilities for the youth of Radotín that didn’t exist before. Every year, people from across the world come to the tournament, exposing the citizens of the small town to people from places many of them would have never dreamed of experiencing.

Marketa Srchova grew up behind the Iron Curtain. The 22-year Radotín resident said she could have never imagined the opportunities afforded to her son, Pavel, a player for LCC Wolves, and his generation when she was an adolescent. But in part because of lacrosse and the Memorial, times have changed.

“For my kids, they’re really happy this is here because they can meet the people from around the world,” she said. “It’s completely different from when I was a teenager. We couldn’t go anywhere. It was closed everywhere. We couldn’t go abroad so easily. They think it’s normal. For us it wasn’t normal.”

Dennis Deis, an official at the Memorial and long-time member of the NLL and box lacrosse communities, housed the Srchova family in 2012 when they came to Calgary for a tournament. They maintained a relationship since, and when Deis needed a place to stay for the week before the Memorial this year, Srchova said the yes came with no hesitation.

Shutterlax.com Ales Hrebesky Memorial 2018
Photo: Marek Stor / Shutterlax.com

And the Memorial means everything to Custodes players. The club doesn’t have much competition within the Czech Republic. There are only a handful of other box teams to play domestically, and Custodes runs through its challengers with ease. Money makes it difficult to send the team to tournaments around the world consistently, so 361 days each year are spent preparing for the four when the world comes to them.

“It’s the biggest thing in the whole year,” said Martin Malinovský, an LC Custodes player who lives seven minutes walking from the arena. “The kids, they want to one day play for LCC in a Memorial. You’re preparing the whole year for the Memorial.”

The local team is often highly competitive, aiming for a championship every year. LCC has won the tournament nine times, but seven of those came in the Memorial’s first eight years. Since the introduction of overseas competition, titles have been harder to come by.

After a 12-year drought, the locals won in 2013 and triumphed again in 2017. Malinovský played on that team, and he said the feelings afterward couldn’t be described.

“You’re the f***-ing king of everything and the whole universe,” he said. “We lost this game (against Nova Scotia), and I didn’t cry. The year we won, I was sitting, had a beer and was crying. It’s something different.”

Unfortunately, Malinovský was unable to play in 2018’s Memorial with a serious knee injury sidelining him. He will be ready to go for the 2018 World Field Championships in July, though, which is the only thing in his life he ranked before the Memorial.

“The Memorial is something that you’re shaking for it to come even now,” Malinovský said minutes after the tournament’s final. “I think after the World Championships, this is the most important thing in my life.”

Friday morning, I elected to take the train to Radotín rather than Uber with my roommate. I had successfully taken the train there before and believed in myself to make it two stops south. My understanding was all trains arriving on Platform 2 of the Smíchov station stopped in Radotín.

I had taken an Uber the day before, and my driver neither understood where to take me nor spoke much English. She got me to the town but stopped at a random building somewhere in Radotín. I asked her to please wait as I checked if it was the right place. As I was walking back to the car motioning that this wasn’t the arena, she drove off, leaving me stranded. After wandering the streets of Radotín searching for any signs I could understand and asking natives who spoke varying levels of English, I finally found the arena.

I thought I would be safer on the train. I thought wrong.

I boarded the first train that came. The inside looked a bit different from the trains I had grown used to, but I figured it could be a newer or older model. I found a seat and put on my headphones, expecting a 10-minute journey. As we pulled away from the station, I noticed some tournament players still standing on the platform. Immediately alarms rang in my head.

I asked the woman sitting across from me where this train was going. With broken English, she told me it was going to Beroun, which I learned was roughly 45 minutes outside of Prague. This was an express train that would pass through Radotín without stopping on its way to the Czech countryside.

I accepted my fate. I spoke with the woman sporadically throughout the train side as she tried her best to help me solve my situation. We passed Karlštejn Castle, and the woman pointed it out to me as the rolling hills created a small opening for the top of the castle to peer through. We traveled along the Berounka River, yellow flowers populating massive meadows meandering at the foothills in front of the winding waterway. Cottages that could have been where Goldilocks encountered three bears sparsely sprang along the track.

Once in Beroun, I followed the crowd leaving the station in hopes of finding help. I stopped a young woman, assuming someone closer to my age would understand English, and asked for help. As she explained train times to me on her phone, another woman approached and asked if I too had taken the wrong train. She had meant to go to Černošice, the stop after Radotín, and made the same mistake as me.

We joined forces and rushed to the ticket booth. Luckily, a train heading back toward Prague came in 20 minutes, and my new friend and I began the journey back. On the ride back, we learned about each other. I explained the Memorial and what brought me to Prague, and she spoke of when she moved to the Czech capital nine years before. She invited me to her café and said to contact her if ever I was in Prague again, one of many examples of the warm welcome I felt in the country.

Two hours after leaving my room, I finally made it to the arena. In the office where I did my work, I ran into Connor Wilson, publisher of LaxAllStars.com and Green Gaels player.

“Don’t worry, it happens to everybody once,” he said with a laugh.

I had never seen a box lacrosse game before the tournament, let alone been to the Memorial. My overall lacrosse background is limited at best, and it’s a world that was entirely foreign to me before six months ago. But in that moment, I felt a rush of belonging. I had completed the rite of passage through the Beroun train station and quiet Czech fields, and now the Memorial was a part of me.

For much of the Memorial’s congregation, thousands of miles and dollars must be tithed to make the pilgrimage. But it’s a small price to pay for what they get in return.

Mike Cregan has come from Ontario to play goalie for the Dublin Riggers for 10 Memorials, missing only one since his first in 2008. He learned of the tournament through his time with the Ireland National Team, and after making the plunge, he can’t go back now.

“The city, the games, the atmosphere. Just playing indoor lacrosse outside is amazing,” he said. “You walk off the train and you hear the music going, and you know it’s game time. I’ve waited a whole year for this, and we’re back. I only have three weeks of vacation time at work, and I want to spend them here.”

Mike Cregan Zino Dylan Cowman Glasgow Clydesider Ales Hrebesky Memorial 2018 Photo Martin Bouda
Clydesiders’ Dyland Cowman (L) & Riggers’ Mike Cregan (R). Photo: Martin Bouda

Cregan’s teammate, Mike “Bingo” Reid, has him beat by one year, the latest edition of the Memorial being Reid’s eleventh appearance. The Lakewood, New Jersey-native said he declares every year will be his last, and yet he can’t seem to convert from the Church of Radotín.

“I’m 44 years old, and I’m still coming,” Reid said. “For God sakes, I should have quit five years ago, but I still come because I love it so much.”

The uniqueness of the event and setting continue to bring Reid back.

“It’s the Mecca of lacrosse. This is nowhere else in the world. Look at the venue we’re at,” he explained, gazing longingly out the window of the office out into the arena. “A lot of Canadian buddies of mine play tons of box lacrosse in Canada, and they don’t see anything like this.”

Everyone must start their Memorial journey somewhere. For Sam Kramer, who came from Israel to play for the Non-Olympic Athletes From Everywhere (NOAFE), 2018 was his first taste of the tournament. After one night, he was sold.

“To say I’m coming back is an understatement,” Kramer said, spitting out his beer at the absurdity of the question. “Now that I know about this, it’s kind of dangerous for them because I’ll never not come back.”

Before stepping off the train, Kramer said he didn’t know what to predict. He had been told some stories of what to expect, but the experience was on another level.

“We get to this town, and there’s a box field in the middle of it, which blew me away,” he said. “People are telling me how the stands are going to fill up, and I think okay, the stands will fill up a little bit. That opening ceremony, there wasn’t standing room anywhere around this field. The whole town stayed for the game. I grew up with professional sports teams, and I understand that love, but when it’s this intimate and this close, I think it’s even cooler.”

Kramer’s team was a microcosm of the tournament. The squad was made up of players from Israel, the United States, Canada, Germany, the Czech Republic and more, most of whom had never met each other before. By the team’s second game, chemistry had already formed, and by the end of the weekend, strong bonds were formed.

Ales Hrebesky Memorial 2018 LaxAllStars Non-Olympic Athletes from Everywhere
5 NOAFES from 5 countries bonding at Opening Ceremony. Photo: Martin Bouda

“We’ve got Germans, Israelis, Americans, Canadians, just all over the place, and none of that stuff mattered,” said Tommy McKee, an American with NLL experience who played with NOAFE in his first Memorial. “We knew we were here with one common goal, which was to play lacrosse and have fun. (This tournament) is a whole bunch of different people from all these cultures coming together, embracing the sport and having a good time. No other event I’ve been to compares.”

Deis has come to most Memorials since 2008, and he agreed with McKee about the special nature of the Memorial. He said it has everything a lacrosse player could want: a bar 60 feet away with unlimited beer, a place to shower, a beautiful arena and friends in every direction. It’s like a dream come true.

“When old lacrosse players pass away,” Deis said, opening his arms up to the lacrosse nave, “they go to a place like this.”

All I knew heading into my first Memorial was I was going to Prague, there would be box lacrosse and everyone raved about the experience. I did not know it would be outside, I did not know it was in the middle of a small town, and I did not know I would have one of the best weeks of my life.

I have done sports writing since I was 15. I have attended too many sporting events in too many different sports to count, both as a journalist and spectator. I’ve covered mainstream events: major college basketball conference tournaments, bowl games, the Gold Cup; and I’ve been to niche events: a strongman competition, an amateur water skiing championship, junior volleyball championships. Never have I covered something like the Aleš Hřebeský Memorial.

I have done my best, but pictures and words cannot do it justice. You don’t need to play lacrosse to enjoy the experience. You don’t need to understand lacrosse to enjoy the experience. You don’t even need to like lacrosse to enjoy the experience. Everyone, no matter your age, interests or where you come from, should attend if they can. It is that special.

Nowhere will you see the level of drinking mixed with families and civility. At no other sporting event will you see people lugging 10 beers in signature plastic cups, hanging the containers by the simple yet ingenious clips attached at each of their tops. In America, the combination of endless, dirt-cheap beer and a violent, rowdy sport would lead to vandalism, obscenities and plenty of projectiles peppering the pitch. At the Memorial, though, alcohol is at the essence of the event, but it’s merely one piece of the puzzle that provides the program’s perfection.

Some teams will drink before and during games. The Glasgow Clydesiders, a divisive team of drunken misfits whose antics and mustaches make them seem straight out of an 80s hockey movie, can be seen hauling beers by the dozens up to the balcony an hour before their games. However, in 2017, the team made a run to the championship and this year finished tenth while remaining competitive.

Glasgow Clydesider Ales Hrebesky Memorial 2018 Photo Martin Bouda Aleš Hřebeský Memorial
Glasgow Clydesiders in their natural habitat. Photo: Martin Bouda

“Players, they party hard. They enjoy it. They have some beer,” Mika said. “But they still play their best, and they hold things together.”

As the day wears on and sunlight becomes artificial light, the arena’s energy grows. Seating on both sides of the rink are packed, with standing area behind cramming more people than it has space. The areas around the rink go two rows deep. Beer cups cover the rink walls, and with every bruising blow the boards become beer-stained glass.

Conversations are held without eye contact as spectators are too concerned with the unfolding drama. Phones stay firmly in pockets, the demons of Twitter and texts not strong enough to pull its subjects away.

Thousands pack The Basilica of Box to do something we rarely see in today’s fast-paced, digital world: live in the moment.

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