Usually if a junior B lacrosse team is playing in August, it means they’re in contention for a provincial or national title.
This year the Guelph Regals and every other Ontario Lacrosse Association junior B team must feel like champions just for getting back out on the floor.
“It's just good to be back on the floor, for sure,” Regals coach Al Burton said. “You could see the excitement in the boys' eyes the first time we got out and started our workouts. It was incredible.”
The Regals aren’t exactly used to playing in August. Silver medallists when they hosted the national Founders Cup championship tournament at the Sleeman Centre in 2008, getting into that tournament as hosts, the Regals advanced past the opening round of league playoffs once since then.
But now there’s a feeling similar to that of winning a title just for playing again. The Regals and several other teams in the league are playing exhibition games just to get on the floor after two consecutive league seasons have been cancelled due to the pandemic.
“It was so good to be back and get everyone back out there,” said Matt Pelkey, Regals’ general manager and assistant coach. “This year we're just kind of getting a look at a lot of different guys pretty much for next year, almost like an extended tryout in a way.
“It was good to be back. Everyone was a little rusty, of course, even the coaches, but it was just so nice to be in an arena playing again.”
The Regals lined up exhibition games against the Owen Sound North Stars and Brampton Excelsiors and also hosted a tournament with its Midwest Division mates, Owen Sound, Elora Mohawks and Hamilton Bengals.
“I guess at the end of the day, just wanting them to establish the love of the game again,” Burton said. “A lot of things happen in two years. Kids go in different directions, so just re-establishing that love of the game again was really, really important for us.”
The Regals had a few practices at the Outdoor Arena at the Optimist Recreation Centre at Puslinch and continue to practise there.
“When we were planning everything, arenas weren't open at the time so we were at Puslinch just to get a head start,” Pelkey said. “It's just nice to get back, just seeing the guys, because not every team is doing something this year.”
While the Regals looked at the exhibition games as a bit of an early evaluation of players who could wear their red, white and blue uniforms next year, they also thought about the players who won’t be eligible to play next year.
“We have a few guys where it was going to be their last year, so we just wanted to do something for them,” Pelkey said. “We weren't sure what to expect, if we were going to have any kind of games. Even if we just got a couple of runs and as we started doing that, things started opening again so we started booking some exhibition games and it just kind of went from there.”
Of course, going without a single league game for two years doesn’t do a team much good financially.
“We've been pretty lucky, actually,” Pelkey said. “In 2019 we had some sponsors leading into that year and luckily they're on board and have stuck with us and carried over into last year and this year as well.
“The league's been pretty understanding. Everyone's in the same boat. No one has any kind of revenue coming in. I'm not going to lie, it has been tough. I've had to chip in my own money just to keep things going as well – just league fees and whatnot. It's definitely been tough to keep things going in that sense, but everyone's in the same boat.
“That's another reason why the sponsorships a couple of years ago were so big because we were able to carry over some of that to pay off some expenses. It's not been easy. I'm not going to sugar-coat it for sure, but in the long run it's all going to work itself out. It's just a matter of keeping our head above water this year, just getting through everything, and then next year hopefully things are back to normal.”
Players who have played for the Regals in the exhibition games are likely to make up the majority of their roster next year. Results in this year’s games are moot as there are no standings being kept, no scoring statistics.
“We're not worried about Ws and Ls,” Burton said. “It means nothing to me at all. It's just a matter of maintaining some sort of discipline out there and hard work. If you give me those two things for this kind of mock season, we're happy.”
“This year's about just setting the foundation again, building off of what we had going two years ago,” Pelkey said. “We have the same staff back this year and a lot of the same players so we're just kind of trying to pick up where we left off a couple of years ago.
“Of course we want to win games, but it's more so about getting back in the rhythm of things.”
And there’s the hope that the feeling the players and coaches have now will return next year.
“It's just unbelievable,” Burton said. “It's great to be back getting the competitive juices going again -- not too competitive, but getting the competitive juices going.”