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Slip slidin' away

Sponging along with the tumbling Tumbleweeds

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Trevor Hagan / The Winnipeg Free Press

Colin Mackenzie of the Tumbleweeds plays against the Mighty Puckin' Drunks during a spongee game at Melrose Park Community Centre on Jan. 4, 2014.

It's Saturday morning at Melrose Community Centre. Less than a minute remains in a sponge hockey game between the Tumbleweeds and the Road Runners -- a pair of squads in the Boston Pizza Men's Division of the 160-team Kildonan Spongee League.

The Tumbleweeds trail by two goals but right now they have a bigger problem to deal with. Seconds ago Tumbleweeds centre Andy Dellipizzi -- that's Dr. Dellipizzi to his Winnipeg patients -- fired a shot at the Road Runners' net. Unfortunately the blast sailed high off a defender's stick and is currently lodged in one of the bazillion snow banks that circle the outdoor rink.

So unless somebody from either team has an extra puck in his equipment bag, today's matchup is going to end with 38 ticks left on the clock.

"Does anybody have a puck?" repeats the referee in the direction of both teams' benches.

Finally, one of the Road Runners yells, "Here!" and tosses a disc to the official.

Thing is, one almost wishes the contest, which the Tumbleweeds eventually lose 3-1, had been called because of an errant puck -- if only because it would have added another odd chapter to the already colourful history of the Tumbleweeds -- one of this city's most enduring sports entities.

Although no official records exist, the Tumbleweeds are arguably the oldest, continuously active sponge hockey team in Winnipeg. And since sponge hockey -- more commonly referred to as spongee -- was invented right here in Manitoba, that makes the Tumbleweeds the oldest, active sponge hockey team in the entire world. (For the uninformed, spongee is a variation of ice hockey played with little to no equipment. Games are held outside, skates are verboten and instead of a vulcanized rubber puck, a sponge puck -- hence the sport's name -- is used.)

2014 marks 40 years since Tom McMahon met Mohan Thawani at Grant Park High School. Back then, Thawani and his buddies organized road hockey games on an almost daily basis, year-round. One day after class, Thawani asked McMahon if he wanted to play, too.

The gatherings didn't cease when Thawani transferred to Kelvin High School; rather, they grew in size after Thawani enlisted a few Kelvinites, most notably present-day captain Cam Currie, to join in. Soon, the games were so large that the group began catching a bus, nets in tow, to Lipsett Hall on Kenaston Boulevard. There they would run around the parking lot for hours on end, unimpeded by somebody bellowing "Car!" every five minutes.

One afternoon while they were in the midst of a game, the guys were approached by John Robertson. Robertson, a budding entrepreneur, had been staging spongee tournaments around town for a couple of years. His next competition was scheduled for nearby Tuxedo Community Centre and he wanted to know if the as-yet unnamed team was interested. The high schoolers signed up immediately, figuring their experience playing together would render them unbeatable, right? Wrong.

"That first tournament we showed up in sneakers and boots because we had no idea what to wear on ice," says Currie, who leads the team in a variety of categories including games played and career penalty minutes. "Everybody on the other team was wearing broomball shoes and they pounded us something like 18-1. We just looked at them in wonderment, trying to figure out how they were running circles around us."

The Tumbleweeds could have called it quits. Instead, they went shopping for the proper footwear and began renting indoor ice -- always after midnight, always followed by a 3 a.m. visit to Salisbury House -- to hone their skills. Three leagues, 521 games, 2,518 goals for and 53 players later, the Tumbleweeds are still rolling along.

With only a handful of titles on their resumé, the Tumbleweeds don't claim to be the greatest spongee team to ever come down the pike. That honour probably belongs to Zulose, a side that once rattled off 176 wins in a row. They aren't the orneriest, either; a team dubbed Junk reportedly consists only of players who have been suspended for one infraction or another.

"Our team has always been more about friendships," says Greg Swayzie, the Tumbleweeds' all-time leading scorer who was forced to "retire" a few seasons ago after suffering a knee injury.

"There are certain teams out there that hold tryouts... that bench people. In all the years we've been together we've never told someone he couldn't play or cut anybody." ("We've cut you off at the bar after a s -- game," yells one of Swayzie's teammates.)

Although Currie and McMahon are the only original 'Weeds who still lace 'em up every Saturday, alumni members gather for poker nights, fantasy sports drafts and summer barbecues. That's when the guys, over a few beers, regale each other with tales from seasons past.

Like the time Dave Brennenstuhl tore his rotator cuff in the second period but returned in the final frame to quarterback the power play. Or the year the Tumbleweeds lost the Canford Cup to a team backstopped by a netminder everybody swears was former Winnipeg Jets goalie Pokey Reddick. Or the afternoon a full-on brawl erupted between the Tumbleweeds and their arch-nemesis, the Rusalka Dancers.

"What happened was one of their guys stuck his stick up right between one of our guys' legs," Swayze says. "I was on the bench yelling at the ref, saying he had to start calling that sort of stuff or there was going to be trouble."

On the next shift Swayzie took it upon himself to tell a Rusalka player to knock it off. The fellow responded with a right to Swayzie's jaw. Within a couple of seconds, everybody from both teams had a dance partner.

"The complex where the game was being played had nine rinks and it took all nine refs from the other games to break things up," Swayzie says, noting he misses playing so much that he refuses to attend Tumbleweeds games nowadays because he finds being on the sidelines too difficult.

"Even if you don't play anymore, you still feel a kinship with everyone; most of these guys are like brothers to me," says Thawani, who moved to Calgary 18 years ago and then to Toronto two years after that.

"A couple of years ago I was diagnosed with cancer and the entire team supported me. They've become a very important part of my life."

OK, so maybe the Tumbleweeds aren't pleased with their current 2-4-1 record. But one thing you'll never hear them grumbling about are the sub-arctic conditions Winnipeg has been suffering through lately. "It was minus-24 last weekend with a little dusting of snow on the ice and it was absolutely perfect," says McMahon who, during that same game, played alongside his 18-year-old son Jacob for the first time.

"Winters in Toronto definitely seem a lot longer," adds Thawani, who flew to Winnipeg expressly for a team get-together at McMahon's home. "When we lived here the winters seemed really short because as soon as the ice froze you were out there every week. Before you knew it, the season was over."

As for the team's tag, McMahon admits Tumbleweeds is a bit drab when compared to some of the other monikers in the Kildonan league, namely Multiple Scoregasms, Too Drunk to Puck or Sponge Worthy.

"We chose it because it was a combination of the old Tumbleweeds comic strip, which we enjoyed, plus the fact that tumbleweeds on the Prairies are kind out of control and tend to look rather shabby. I think that describes us on ice, pretty much."

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2014 D11

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