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Witmer’s Euro Vacation – BEST AHM Ever!

Let me just get this out of the way now: 2016 may have been the best AHM ever!

The second leg of my lacrosse-intentional odyssey is coming to a close in roughly an hour when I board my plane in Prague, bound for London. While there is a sequence of events, and I have knocked off another year at the Ales Hrebesky memorial, I just want to make it extremely clear that this is NOT a trip where one goes through the motions. Not even remotely.

Every minute of this Euro Vacation has been stressful, beautiful, and brilliant proof that the strangest things can, and more importantly WILL, happen to you when you’re willing to accept them.

BEST AHM EVER!!!!

For now, let’s focus on the AHM. The Memorial is so much more than a tournament. I have literally been attempting to get this article started for an hour and a half already today and this is my third day trying to start it! The pressure to find words that are strong enough to come even close to doing this tournament any sort of justice is admittedly quite strenuous and frustrating.

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This year was particularly special for me. I can’t really point to one minute, one game, or any one thing that was done off the field that redefined ‘depravity’ for me and say that THAT was the moment that made this year different from the rest. However I think, and I’ll tread lightly here because I didn’t really know him all that well, that the passing of Frank Menshner definitely hit close to home for a lot of people at the Memorial.

The result of his untimely passing may have offered a slightly deeper understanding for all in attendance: you don’t just have opponents and spectators in Radotin, what you’re getting is an extension of your family from every walk of life from all over the world. This world can make you feel really small sometimes, but when strangers turn family in a matter of six days or so, I’ll tell you what… this special little place can make you feel pretty damn good about the world.

For 2016, I was lucky enough to be asked back to play with the Glasgow Clydesiders. Full disclosure, I have absolutely zero percent Scottish heritage, but I wear a kilt ten days a year, (as well as select occasions such as a work sponsored bowling outing and the Utah Democratic Caucus) so I’m pretty much covered.

The Clyde is a team of good old boys, and I think we took home a number of awards, even if achampionship proved elusive for the Tartan Army. We had six nationalities represented. In addition to the Scottish, we had the obvious Americans and Canadians, as well as two Czech locals including my great critter-friend Petr and our “15 year old offender” Honza. We also had Big Ben from London, two Stefans from Germany, an Italian bulldog named Paolo who I just learned is like thirty years old. I would have bet a hundred krinkles he wasn’t a giorno over twenty-four.

The boys came to play. With a relatively similar roster to last year, we had a completely unprecedented finish of fourteenth, which is miles and miles from our previous three finishes of seventeenth of twenty-one teams. We opened pool play with a wild 2-0 showing. We were the heavy underdogs, predicted to lose our pool and be relegated to the loser’s bracket. We had a brilliant showing against the Bundeswehr team out of Germany (much to the delight of the Stefans) and put up a lot of goals to open up the tournament with the very first game.

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We then had a second game three hours later against the team I would consider to be closest friends with, the beautiful Privateers out of Nova Scotia.

They were the first guys I met my first year out here, and I was almost instantly welcomed in as a friend and I’ve never heard a cross word come from any Privateer mouth about absolutely anybody in the three years I’ve known them. To get to play them in pool play was something I was looking forward to, regardless of the fact that I was expecting a loss.

What followed was by far one of the most enjoyable lacrosse experiences of my life. It was fast, it was physical, and it was played perfectly clean. We went down 1-0 early, but our goalie Uncle Zino, decided to play the best game of his life and we were able to fight for the duration of the game and found ourselves on top of the pile at the end of it by a score of 3-1. I was fortunate enough to net one of my own to put us up 2-1. That’ll be a goal I’ll probably watch once or twice more on video, but I’ll remember that one forever. The pictures will live on in my head.

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The Clyde was 2-0, and we celebrated that fact about as hard as anybody who’s ever won any championship. We were projected to lose out, but we had put the work in on the field and as a result we were automatically guaranteed a place higher than we had ever finished before.

There was no 3-0, however. The win against Nova Scotia lined us up on a crash course with the home team, the LCC Custodes. A lot of groans come about when you find yourself slated to play the home team, because you’ve honestly just been dealt a game with some of the best transition box lacrosse players in the world. I was elated, honestly. If this 2-0 miracle was to manifest into something even wilder, we would eventually have to play some championship caliber teams, and I think we were honestly quite lucky to have our championship run snuffed out by LCC.

If you’re going to lose, and 20 of 21 teams are going to lose, how much better does it get than having yourself weighed and tested by the home team in front of a thousand of fans, as well as the scores of your friends and fellow players who are cheering for your improbable victory UNDER THE LIGHTS IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC! I told anyone who would listen that night, that win or lose, this is why we still run.

Games like these only come around once in a while once you get to a certain age. This was a gift whose significance will never be lost on me. I was even fortunate enough to net a pretty little breakaway goal. If you look at the scoreboard, we got smashed. If you watch the tape, maybe you’d say we were dominated. The Glasgow Clydesiders played hard from the first whistle to the last and I have zero regrets leaving that field… except the fact I got stuffed on a different breakaway… semantics.

We went on to drop our next game as well. We played the Sultans of Istanbul… at eight in the friggin morning the very next day. The Sultans boasted about as many Turkish passports as we did Scottish, and what the end result came to be was a very physical contest that turned out to be an absolute riot once both teams found a mutual understanding for what physicality would be tolerated and what wasn’t kosher on the field.

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On a level of personal achievement, I would just like to highlight that hidden ball tricks are legitimately 100% part of how I play lacrosse. I’ve pulled them off all over the world, on the field as well as in the box, and they’re pretty much my favorite thing in the sport to pull off. In this particular instance I pulled off not one, but two successful deceptions that resulted in goals. I don’t talk trash, I don’t take cheap shots, or get into it after the whistle to prove my kahones.

Honestly I don’t even chirp or make comments because I end up sounding ridiculous. Hidden ball tricks are my subtle, yet hysterically effective method of taking the piss out of any team, regardless of score or outcome of the game.

Our loss sent us into the direction of the ‘Olde Enemy’.

We stayed in the same boatel as the London Knights, and this game had particular meaning not only for our Scottish boys, but for our defensive big man, who happens to hail from London himself. The Knights are a bunch of great guys, and we’ve shared quite a few pivos on the hotel, boatel, holiday in over the years, and so this was one we were looking forward to playing in a similar sense to the Nova Scotia game. You were being given two halves on a field with people you know to show them exactly what you’ve got.

And so we showed them. In one of our more dominant showings, we went off for quite a few goals, and a beautifully played defensive game, which turned into a great transition game, which is always nice for yours truly, who likes to leave really early and hog all the breakaway goals. I was fortunate enough to be gifted four or five free runs down the floor, which resulted in four goals. We ended up at the infamous Chinese Disco that night with all the London boys once again, and it was pretty clear that while we did in fact win the game, once again there had been a perfect level of physicality and intensity, while maintaining a clean game.

Earlier in the morning, Matt “Tan City” Tanner had called a mandatory team meeting after our first loss to Istanbul. While that was pretty much code for ‘everyone meet at the bar for a pint’, it was also where our coach, Rob Kanchor, made the announcement as to who was going to the All-Star game later on that evening.

Each team gets to send three players. I had been playing alright, nothing above and beyond in my own cynical eyes, but to make it to the All-Star game is something I’ve wanted to do since my first attendance at the AHM two years ago. In addition to our goalie, Dylan Cowman, who would be representing Europe, Mitch Vellner also got the nomination to represent North America. Team selections weren’t based on what team you were playing for, but rather where you personally were from.

The feelings of pride and honor were quickly met by a cold shower of Czech beer over my head from my wonderful teammates as my name was announced as our third selection to the All-Star Game. My heart was full of pride and my legs were in full protest as I learned I’d be getting another game and the chance to play alongside some of the world’s best.

best ahm ever

It was an amazing setting. A packed crowd, even more so that our LCC game the night before. We were playing under the lights and this time it was a guarantee that every other player, ref, and fan from all of the other teams was in attendance to watch their teammates represent them in the game. I even got the chance to play with Adam Nauerth again, who I’d run with in my senior B days playing with the Rochester Greywolves. Additionally, I was lucky enough to play with Joe Evans, the goalie with the Vermont Voyageurs, with whom I’m trying out with in May.

I played where I normally play, out the D door with the specific intentions of pushing transitions and cheating as much as I can to rack up breakaway opportunities. I was lucky enough in the second quarter to get a good breakaway lined up by my buddy Stu from the Privateers and I felt obligated to stick that ball in the net or else Stu would never let me forget it.

Earlier in this article I mentioned that my calling card was in fact a hidden ball trick. What better place to leave a calling card than an All-Star game?

The only issue was that nobody, my team nor the opposition, knew what was going on. I drove the corner, per usual, with an empty stick in a convincing manner. The next part, which has its moments, but can also be less fun, took forever. I was getting roughed up in the corner by two of the European fellas and when I was able to look up, my offensive guys were passing the ball around, because nobody cared to notice that the goalie was staring at me and leaving the goal wide open and that the defenders thought that they had struck gold by pinning a transition guy who wasn’t looking to pass in the corner.

Eventually, someone said something to somebody or someone looked at the goalie, and we shot and scored on the empty net. All is well that ends well… unless you’re the guy getting pumped in the corner! It was truly an excellent experience to play in that game and I’ll never forget it. I was able to net another one as well, so I walked away with two and a hidden ball trick. I’ll take it.

We didn’t play again until noon, so it was off to the Chinese Disco as I had mentioned before. I won’t get into specifics for the sake of humanity, but this place is something else. It’s a little hole in the wall place in Radotin where the drink price changes every time, but it’s always cheap. I want to keep describing this place, but A) I can’t get into certain details and B) I think it’s something you really just need to see for yourself. I’m not even 60% sure how to get there, but if you start chanting “Chi-nese Disco! Chi-nese Disco!” in the club house next to the field between the hours of 10 and 12 on any given night, there will surely be someone who will be into it and accompany you to the promised land.

Waking up for a noon game has never been so difficult. It wasn’t a hangover, it was sleep deprivation over the course of a week combined with the battery on my beleaguered body. The one thing that put a little shred of pep in my shortened step was the fact that today we would be playing for 13th place, which sounds ridiculous, but to the most optimistic guys I’ve ever met, this was actually a big deal. In addition to our own bizarre enthusiasm, we would be playing Goldstar Tel-Aviv, who always takes every game seriously in an effort to further the game and it’s integrity within Israeli Lacrosse.

It was also Saturday, which is the greatest day ever when it comes to the AHM. Nobody is off doing the tourist thing or at home sleeping, this is the day that every player watches every game. Except for like the 9am game… because come on. There are dozens of kids running around, some asking for autographs and some trying to trade you for your jerseys and shorts. Some kids wants hugs and pictures, and every kid wants a fist bump from every player in uniform, doesn’t matter if you won by 1 or lost by 50.

Somehow I’d made an impression with a couple particular kids last year, who decided that Glasgow was their favorite team, and even stranger still, that I was their favorite player on their favorite team. I don’t think I’ve ever had fans that weren’t related to me. Instant shirts and hats for those boys. They were back this year, and the one kid was still wearing the hat even after his dog had done the best to eat the brim. I remember that my favorite hat was from the Hobart camp when I was in fourth grade. This kid might be a year or two younger, but I can still remember how cool I thought that hat was, and to think that I was the one who could give that kid such a thing, that’s what it’s all about.

The Clydesiders might not be playing to win the cup every year, but we’re definitely coming home with new fans every year. I’d have to say that we might be number three or four as far as fan favorites. LCC is the home team, and nobody is taking that one away from them. The Megamen probably take number two, with a long history of attendance and a gear bag FULL of shirts, hats, etc. to give away to kids due to their mysteriously inexplicable relationship with UncommonFit and their genetic predisposition to being awesome dudes.

I’d say we’re tied for third/fourth with the Gaels. On the plus side for them, they win and stuff and have big names such as Gavin Prout on their rosters. Working against them is that they win and stuff, and everyone is rooting for the underdogs… like Glasgow. We wear kilts and sing songs and you’ll always find a place at the table if you want to have a pivo with the boys. We win some games, I mean we even went 2-0 for a bit there, but we’re of the opinion that winning off the field makes winning on the field that much sweeter. Mon the Clyde.

We ended up short on the scoreboard in our finale with Goldstar. They played great and we were running out of gas in the first three minutes. In a speech that will live on in my memory for quite some time, our goalie’s first few words at halftime, in an attempt to rally the troops, started with “boys I’m suckin pondwater here, you’re gonna have to do Uncle Zino a favor and not let these guys shoot”, which turned out to be quite the rallying cry, as we were able to come back and tie the game with a few minutes left, only to disobey orders and the final Goldstar goal came with roughly two minutes left.

I was able to put a pretty one past goaltender/amigo Chris Leone and one of our lefties, Dion, went off for four tallies of his own. I won’t say we should’ve won that game, because I don’t think we played all that well, but if we had played that game any other time that week, maybe we would’ve had a little more juice to get those couple extra turnovers or bury one or two more.

But, que sera, sera. Fourteenth place is a lock to be a 2nd seed in the pool play, which will result in someone who finished lower than us to be in our pool next year, which is friggin sweet and in theory will help us escape our group again next year. IN THEORY.

The championship was a rematch. LCC and Alberta were matched up in pool play this year, and the first contest resulted in an LCC loss in the game following the opening ceremony… something that is pretty much unheard of apparently. LCC rebounded and smashed through the rest of their schedule, including the famous Glasgow Clydesiders, and wound up all the way back at the final after beating the Gaels in a nailbiter of a semi.

Alberta didn’t have a cakewalk by any means. In a stunning performance that I don’t think too many people saw coming, the Turku Titans out of Finland put on a brilliant performance all week. Knocking off last year’s champions to get the week going, Turku lost in an overtime shootout to Alberta. I have nothing against Alberta, but I was hoping for an all-Euro final.

The championship game was exactly that. Despite the rain, the caliber was full on and both teams played their games. Dom Pesek scored beautiful highlight reel goals for LCC in addition to the Custodes scoring traditional Custode fast-movement goals. Alberta was highlighted on offense by a 5’3 (tops) righty who I only know as Greg. Greg had been one of my favorite players to watch in quite some time.

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The bowling ball effect was in full effect and I don’t think I’ve ever seen such small corners hit so consistently. In addition to Greg Bourret, Erik Turner was an absolute horse and I don’t think I ever saw him leave the field. Power, man down, ball team, he ran transition, he was a lock down defender, and the guy can shoot! He literally did the work of four men for Alberta and I don’t think there’s a championship for ‘Berta without that guy running the floor.

After the championship game comes the closing ceremony, just like the Olympics. The only difference? There’s no way the Olympics have fireworks this impressive. Ondrej and the boys must have had a boost in budget or they found a Soviet stockpile somewhere. I’ve seen some impressive shows in some major cities, but this was a mind-blowing assault that had bits and pieces of fireworks landing on the crowd below. There’s no way I’ve ever seen this grade of firework operated in such close proximity to human beings.

It was great.

After the ceremony everyone was invited to a party. Since the clubhouse can only accommodate so many, this year the tournament was throwing us a party at a warehouse-turned-club. I had no idea where it was, nor how to get there, so what does the tournament do? They get us our own private train to bring us to this place.

A thousand people marching from the bar to the train station, most carrying a beer or two to keep the whistle wet for the ride, of course. On the train one of the Glasgow guys started singing one of the Scottish songs, and so we all joined in. When that song was over, one of the Finnish guys started yelling something in Finnish, and all the Turku guys joined right into the song.

This went back and forth on the train for pretty much the entire ride, and even the LCC guys sang one of their Czech songs. It was friggin cool.

Once we got there, it was exactly what you’d think when you were promised “an old warehouse”. It was a huge venue packed full of the lacrosse boys as well as every local girl from Radotin to…. somewhere else in the Czech Republic… sorry I only know one city. Drinks were cheap, because everything is cheap, and it was a really good time. I didn’t have my phone on me, because I learned my lesson my first year, but when I finally got a look at a clock it was 4:00am. I don’t stay out until 4:00am. As we were getting home in the cab, we were walking in as some of the Irish guys were walking out to catch their rides to the airport.

We didn’t rush to get up the next day, it was a slow start to be sure, but when we did all eventually rise from the dead, we decided to actually, ya know, see Prague. We walked all over the city, seeing the Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, and a statue with a golden wiener that apparently is pretty famous as well. It was good on the body and the mind to get out and see such a beautiful city. Having your brains and body scrambled into the boards is fun and all for a couple days, but at some point to do need to look up and appreciate the absolutely amazing architectural abilities human beings possess when they’re not busy blowing everything up.

At the start of this article, I was in fact in the Czech airport. Now I’m sitting in my buddy’s apartment in London for its conclusion. Uluc and I went to high school together when he came over from Turkey as a foreign exchange student to Oswego High School ten years ago. Now he’s studying here in London and I figured I’d stop in and say hello on my way up to Manchester for the British National Championships this weekend.

It’s been a life-altering trip. Just as every trip that has preceded it, and in the same manner every future trip will follow suit. You cannot say that you are the same person after an experience like this. It would be naïve to think that when the world opens up to you and lets you come see it’s wonders and meet its beautiful people, that you can harbor the same fears or stigmas in your heart that you might have felt before.

It’s a great big beautiful world. There are a couple bad apples, and we’re doing our best to absolutely poison the entire planet, but that’s no excuse to get cynical. I’ve met the most amazing people from every walk of life from every corner of the globe. It’s easy to stay home. It’s easy to board up your life from everyone else around you these days. You have the internet, why would you need to go out and experience the world when you can just click on it?

There are some things you really just need to see. There are feelings of fear and uncertainty and panic that you need to feel. To put total trust that it’ll be alright just because I want it to be alright… it’s something else. It is my belief that it isn’t how big you can build your house, your walls, your fences. It is my belief that it’s about how you can build a bigger table.

Break bread with a man you can’t communicate with. Drink a beer and have a laugh with someone you thought you hated because that’s the way you thought it had to be because the flag he flies above his family’s house is different than yours. We’re all in this together. So let’s put on a helmet and some gloves and go throw the ball around, knock each other over, help each other back up and keep playing.

Sport is medicine. Maybe it can’t save the world, but maybe it can.