In the final stages, it didn’t take long. Just a kindly request from a son to his dad, an easy response from the old man, and a meeting with a group of teenagers with an old dream of a new rugby team.
But it wasn’t as easy as it sounds.
The teenagers had played rugby together for a couple of years with two high school championships under their belts in the name of Mount Douglas High. When not playing for the mountain men, they were the heart of a James Bay Athletic junior squad; fit, well trained, but unhappy playing what they called “pack rugby.” They were looking for a more open game with good hands, speed, and intelligent running as its main features.
They frequently met to discuss their dreams. Then, early in 1969, they called a “final decision” meeting – this time with a potential coach attending. I was asked to attend and “maybe offer some advice.” No harm in that, I thought, as son Mark and I strolled down Gordon Head Road to the home of another young rebel “to hammer out a few details.”
Two or three hours later when we strolled home, I was the president of an as yet unrecognized rugby club. And, not at all sure as to how that had happened, or in full understanding of what it meant.
Half-a-dozen players, one innocent father, and a potential coach Gordie Hemmingway were present at that 1969 meeting in a house on Gordon Head Road close to the Cedar Hill X Road intersection. The agenda included asking Gordie to commit formally to coaching the new team. “No problem,” he said but quickly added, with expletives deleted, that a few things needed to be done before he could agree to what was being asked.
Well, a team name would help, as would a field to play on. Team colours would need to be decided and provided, a few games balls would be required, a well-equipped medical chest was essential, “and,” he said, “you’ll need a president to make the official application to be recognized and accepted in the league.”
It was then that son Mark smiled at me and said with seductive confidence: “You could do that, couldn’t you, Dad?” The other players chorused “that would be great!” and the trap was sprung. I had been a round-baller – a soccer player all my life now, suddenly, I was the president of a rugby club without a name, a home field, team strip, game balls or an essential well-stocked medical kit. And and no money.
A team name came first. Several had been tossed around at earlier meetings and Velox – Latin for speed – emerged as a favourite. It appealed to Gordie, probably because it had a familiar ring to Vindex, the team of his youth. Gordie had played for Vindex in Vancouver in his teens and with them had won three consecutive championships between 1951 and 1954. It was during those glory years that he played against the vaunted New Zealand All Blacks and scored a never-to-be-forgotten try. Google translates Vindex as “avenger” or “champion.” It was later made evident that Gordie played and coached Vindex style.
Latin student Susan Mayse confirmed Velox translates to “speed,” but suggested it would sound stronger if incorporated in a motto. I remember Gordie asking what the motto might be and think it was Jackie Clarkson who answered: “Velox Omnia Vincit – Speed Conquers All.” It was obviously thought best that no mention be made to Gordie of the feminine input. There was what the best of clichés describes as a pregnant pause before Gordie barked: “Speed conquers all! Okay! But just remember, first you need the (expletive deleted) ball.”
As the meeting was breaking up, I asked Gordie if he had any advice for his rookie president. “Yeah, stay out of the (expletive repeated) coaching. That’s my job. You just get the club everything it needs. The medical kit is important – and don’t forget corner flags.”
Sounds silly, but it was typical Hemmingway. His English vocabulary was basic, his rugby knowledge voluminous – and when it came to the game, he commanded attention to detail.
And so, we began.
The first game balls (first practice balls were player owned) were donated by Victoria lawyer Ian Stuart. Cash for the first uniforms – they were fragile black T-shirts, good for maybe two or three games because we couldn’t afford real rugby shirts – came from the players or their parents and friends who looked with kind amusement on my pathetic fund-raising efforts but never failed to respond. The “medicine chest” was thing of envy among other clubs. Donated by the late Mike Griffin and stocked with everything thinkable. And, the first corner and other sideline flags were of sturdy timber – not the slender wand-like markers of today.
Our home field was at Lambrick Park – then an emerging Saanich park, with the old Lambrick Farm residence park headquarters and the original cow barn which became dressing rooms for both our team and visiting teams. There were no showers that first season of 1969-70. We were not a pleasant fixture for visiting teams and, to be honest, the most loyal Velox players didn’t enjoy the wet times when the east-west slope of the field left a two-inch deep pool of water in one corner and the muddy slop of a baseball base path in the other.
We almost lost Tommy Carson one Saturday afternoon when he was swarmed and buried, facedown, in “the swamp.” A true story and far from laughable at the time.
On practice nights, those of us who could afford the gas lined our cars on one side of the field with headlights on high beam. I can proudly claim to have attended every practice for the first and second season, but cheerfully admit that for most of both seasons, I was wearing winter clothes with a flask of hot scotch not far away. And I sat in the car a lot.
I can’t remember when we finally got real change rooms and showers at Lambrick, but I can remember the joyous celebration when they were finally available. We were proud to be able to send visiting teams home clean.
And that’s the way – as I recall – it all started. Just the first few bricks in a fragile foundation which others have more than strengthened and continue to build on. I am proud to have been the first, but salute and thank those who followed: presidents, captains, players, coaches and those who never took the field of play but worked, and still work, to keep strong and alive the dreams of new generations.
Last Saturday – September 21 to be precise –the old Velox, now the Westshore RFC Velox Valhallians played host to a dozen or so members of the first ever Velox XV. A 50th Birthday celebration-reunion.
The youngest in the group was in his 60s; the oldest pushing 75. Among them retired school teachers, retired principals, retired lawyers, land surveyors’, construction company owners and a senior vice president of McDonald’s who began his career with the Golden Arches on Shelbourne Street and ended it with the negotiating team that took McDonald’s into Russia.
As I listened to their lively conversations and laughter at remembrances of triumphs and disasters 50 years ago, I realized how fortunate I had been to know them back then and how I still treasure their friendship today.
I have written before and repeat with sincerity: They taught me more about loyalty and sharing praise and blame than I ever taught them. And it was great to feel accepted by a group of successful old men I first knew as a bunch of teenagers with a dream they made come true.