July 18, 2018
By Louis Zatzman
This year’s Toronto Rush are precociously dominant. However, this is nothing new, and in preparation for what’s to come in the 2018 AUDL playoffs, it is helpful to look back at the history of the Rush. Eight players have played on the Rush since 2013: Cam Harris, Gord Harrison, Jeff Lindquist, Mark Lloyd, Isaiah Masek-Kelly, Thomson McKnight, Geoff Powell, and Adrian Yearwood. It’s important to note that they’ve been here before.
In fact, for those who’ve been on the Rush since its inception in 2013, they’ve never not been to championship weekend.
“The 6 years of never losing to New York, and never losing to Washington at home, it's hard to get past,” explained veteran Jeff Lindquist. “Playing them again, it does feel kind of meaningless. That's not to say we're definitely going to win, or anything like that. I don't mean it that way. [But] it's quite repetitive at this point.”
Winning can be tiring. In 2013, the AUDL was far less talented than it is today. The Rush swept through the competition like high tide through a sand castle en route to winning their first and only championship. Many of the veterans’ fondest memories aren’t of actual gameplay, but instead of special, silly moments with their teammates.
“I remember playing bottle,” laughed Gord Harrison, remembering how the team celebrated the 2013 championship. “It's a silly game where we stand in a circle with a Gatorade bottle and bounce it off the ground. Of course, there's all sorts of rules surrounding it. I remember winning the championship, and then playing a game of bottle. We were so amped that we wanted to do more sports.”
Adrian Yearwood’s favourite memory of the early years was similarly about his teammates, instead of the actual sport itself.
“The bus rides, I would say, are some of the best times,” Yearwood explained. “It's obviously tough, having to be on the bus, sitting around for hours and hours and hours and hours and hours, and then to play a game, and to get right back on the bus, and to go right back on it for hours and hours and hours.”
One bus ride in particular stood out, when Yearwood and Lindquist invented a blindfolded version of Connect Four while in New York. Every game needed an observer to notify the players when someone had won. Now-coach Sachin Raina even connected seven game pieces in a row for one victory – practically impossible when playing with the benefit of your sight.
“On the entire bus ride back, for probably 3-4 straight hours, we played blind Connect Four with the entire team,” remembered Yearwood. “It's one of the only times the entire team has ever been doing the same thing on a bus.”
In 2013, players needed to invent new roles to stay engaged on the field. Jeff Lindquist – then a pure striker, who would sprint past and leap over defenders – helmed a defensive line for fun. They exulted in the newness, the freshness of the AUDL. The chaos of choosing new lines with only seconds in between points, the ever-present questions of how to organize road trips, the still-daunting problems of how to force fans into the stands: the novelty of the AUDL was its selling point in its early years, at least for the players.
In 2014, the AUDL added a West Division, and the Toronto Rush were no longer the unquestioned titan of the league. The Rush lost to the new San Jose Spiders in the finals, badly. They didn’t make the finals in 2015, though they were still knocked out by the Spiders.
Over the years, new players joined the Rush, including a younger generation of athletes. Many of the 2013 veterans were close friends; they had played together for almost a decade, even before they joined the Toronto Rush. New talents like Jonathan Edwards, Jaret Meron, Jacky Hau, and Iain MacKenzie joined the team. They didn’t change the team culture or the style of play on the field. 2013 players like Cam Harris and Thomson McKnight remained the unquestioned leaders.
In fact, the younger generation remembered the awe and wonder of playing the biggest names at the highest level.
“The most memorable [moment], the past few years with Rush, my first championship weekend was the biggest defining moment that I remember, and getting to play in that [2016 semi-finals] game against Dallas,” said Edwards. “That was the first time I'd played against these other superstars that you hear about… Playing against these guys like Jimmy Mickle, and some of those guys, that was really cool, and I remember thinking wow, I've made it to the top here. That was an awesome moment for me. I matched up against Kurt Gibson once or twice, and he kind of took me to school.”
The real culture change has come these past few years. New players like Jason Huynh and Brett Tan in 2016, Connor Armstrong and Mike MacKenzie (Iain’s little brother) in 2017. Not only have those players seized foundational roles on both the offence and defence, but they’ve also known each other for years. Many of the young players now entering the Rush system – unlike the additions in 2014 and 2015 – have played together for years in Toronto’s junior program, the Toronto Elites.
“None of us played together as juniors, whereas nowadays all these guys come in, they've been playing since juniors, they've been playing U20s, and they've been playing all these systems together, and there's enough guys all kind of in that similar age, playing on so many different teams [together], and they're so good, they can come in, and now [the team is] shifting towards that wave,” admitted Edwards.
The change in culture coincided with the Rush avenging themselves against many of the stars who humbled them in years past. Last year, the Rush beat a star-laden Dallas Roughnecks, who boasted several of the superstars who had previously beaten the Rush. Kurt Gibson was previously on the 2016 Roughnecks and 2014 Spiders teams that had knocked the Rush out of the playoffs.
“Being able to get some revenge against Dallas…” pondered Yearwood. “I feel like everyone was kind of counting us out at that point, so it was pretty cool to prove the doubters wrong. Kurt Gibson, specifically, has really had our number, historically. We have lost a lot of games to Kurt Gibson. It was definitely pretty sweet getting that win back on him, and those guys.”
The Rush – and the AUDL – have come a long way since 2013. No longer will the Rush roll over their opponents come championship weekend; some of Toronto’s opponents in the playoffs could easily roster players who’ve beaten Toronto in years past. whether Chris Mazur, Brandon Malecek, or Beau Kittredge. The Rush didn’t win the championship in 2013, and the upcoming playoffs will be the team’s best opportunity since 2013. They will have to be considered favourites.
However, there’s more that draws Toronto’s 2013 crew back year after year than winning or losing Frisbee games. Whether Toronto wins or loses when pitted against their old foes will feel less significant, for some of the 2013 veterans, than the road that led them here.
“I am quite sure that this will be my last season with the team,” announced Harrison. “I've definitely been doing some thinking about what the team has meant to me. Even after the game in Ottawa…that was probably my last game as a Rush player. I definitely had some private moments. It feels like a change of era, as I go from one, my ultimate playing career, which has been such a huge part of my life through all of, now, 13 years of competitive games, immediately into the next phase of my life. I've been doing a lot of thinking about all the fun we've had.”
An undefeated 2013 season; a game of bottle; finally beating Kurt Gibson in 2017; blind Connect Four: The memories blend together for those who’ve been along for the entire ride.
“Ultimate, to me in general, is just a blur,” said Lindquist. “It's all one game.”