It takes two days to drive from the Six Nations of Grand River, Ont. where kids grab a lacrosse stick as soon as they can walk, to Winnipeg.
That's a long haul for a family, and yet despite the distance about 40 people made the trek from the First Nation to Manitoba, where they settled into the St. Norbert Arena to watch their Six Nations Rebels whip their way to defending their Founders' Cup national junior B box lacrosse championship.
Along the way, fans beat their drums. They cheered so loud they lost their voices, and so in a whisper declared the trip was worth it. It's in their blood.
"We love our team," said Maryann Anderson during the second intermission of Sunday's gold-medal game, which saw the Rebels down the Calgary Mountaineers 17-12. "It's a community team... everybody gets involved."
This year marked the first time in two decades Manitoba has hosted the Founders' Cup, and that kind of excitement is something organizers hope to see grow in Manitoba. It's been a good summer for lacrosse in this province: earlier in August, the city hosted the bantam box national championships.
"The exposure that athletes have had in this province for lacrosse has been fantastic," said Manitoba Gryphons coach and president Ken Stuebing.
"We're just excited to have had the opportunity to do this and to showcase the sport to Manitoba, and to demonstrate that we can play on stage with the top teams in Canada."
That they did. The Oakbank-based Gryphons commanded attention through the tournament, winning four games, tying another and only losing one. Unfortunately, the one they lost, an 11-9 heartbreaker against Team Nova Scotia, knocked them out of medal contention. Instead, the Gryphons came back and won the second-tier trophy, banishing Team Quebec 12-1.
"Some of the guys were holding the sticks a little tight," Stuebing said of the Nova Scotia loss, where the Gryphons were favoured to win. "Guys may have felt the stress of being a host in that game. I'm really proud of the efforts of the guys to regroup after that loss... I think we demonstrated in our last game that we should be running with the big dogs."
They'll get a chance to do that soon. The Gryphons have been invited to move up to the junior A level of their Rocky Mountain Lacrosse League, and are currently weighing whether it's best to make the move next season or in 2015. With any luck, the Founders' Cup experience will shine a brighter spotlight on the Gryphons as they prepare for the jump -- about 1,000 fans and 125 volunteers turned out to St. Norbert over the tournament's six days.
Things didn't always run perfectly -- the air conditioning in the arena broke down earlier in the week, leaving players and fans to battle it out in the sweltering heat -- but in the end, there were the cheers, the spill of victors onto the iceless rink, and the thrill of grabbing a little piece of the national spotlight.