Andrew McGrath – the AFL’s Mississauga Man

In the middle of the night in Mississauga, just outside of Toronto, a group of people who were previously huddled around a computer screen have exploded into rapturous cheers and hugs. This is the extended family of Andrew McGrath, watching as the Canadian-born Aussie got picked up as the number one pick in the 2017 AFL Draft.

“They somehow live-streamed the draft over in Canada at 3am or whatever ridiculous time it was, and they’re really happy about it,” McGrath laughed, decked out proudly in his Essendon Football Club training gear.

“They don’t know too much about footy but they sort of know what’s going on. A lot of my cousins that have been out here just love it.”

McGrath becomes the second Canadian to be listed by an AFL club after Mike Pyke, the trailblazing Premiership-winning ruckman for the Sydney Swans. Kendra Heil is another Canadian in the footballing ranks – she’s listed for Collingwood in the AFLW competition.

As with Pyke and Heil, McGrath’s journey into Australian football hasn’t been as straight-forward as most that run around in the big league. When he made his way to Australia with his family at age five, he – like those cousins back in Canada – had no understanding of the game these kids around him were playing – but he had to make friends somehow.

“At primary school everyone’s playing footy, and I was like ‘what is this game, I’ve never seen it before’ – I was big into soccer when I was over in Canada, and footy became sort of a coping mechanism to fit in,” he said.

“I was pretty athletic and I picked up the game pretty quickly and that’s sort of where footy started. I’ve loved it ever since.”

That athleticism, though, would cause some angst later on, when he had to make a choice between his sporting options.

“I guess it didn’t really hit until year ten, I used to do athletics pretty competitively as well and that was a big choice for me, whether I went down the path of footy or athletics,” he explained.

“When I was 16 I was tossing and turning about which way to go and I think once I made that decision it sort of kicked in this could happen, this is what I want to happen, so I set some goals and it’s worked out in the end.”

After a session at Essendon’s massive facility at Tullamarine in Melbourne’s west in the sweltering summer heat, McGrath told Canada Down Under he was enjoying his first weeks at the top level, both from a physical and educational perspective.

“It’s been amazing – obviously it’s pretty hard work and they hold us back a little bit as first-year players so we don’t break down,” he said.

“It’s just nice to be a part of it – you see why the good players are the good players, they work so hard and if you can just learn a little bit from each of them then that’s the way to do it – I’ve loved every second of it.”

The Essendon Football Club has suffered a few torrid years, with off-field issues dominating the headlines and putting a strain on everyone at the club. You could have almost expected there to be a dark cloud hanging remaining over the football side, but McGrath says that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Everyone is just so focussed for the year – everyone’s forgotten about what’s happened and just moved forward and we’re a stronger group because of it,” he said.

“The focus within the group and the drive is just amazing, and it’s great to be a part of.”

McGrath’s goals for the year are simple and resolute. While the hype that comes with being the number one pick is enormous, he’s determined to let his hard work do the talking.

“I just want to train as well as I can and play as well as I can if I get the opportunity,” he said.

“The goal is to play as soon as I can and as soon as I’m ready to play, whenever the coaches think that is, I’ll put my hand up and take that opportunity and hopefully make the most of it.”

While he hasn’t made it back to Canada for a few years – with the pressures of his final years of high school and his football clearly weighing heavily, McGrath hopes to increase the occurances of flights over the Pacific – even if it will reduce any chance of getting a decent tan.

“We get nine weeks off I think, so I reckon I’ll head back every year now, but over the last few years I haven’t been back,” he said.

“But it’s always usually in our summer, so we cop the double winter.”

In addition to his football, McGrath is studying Arts at Monash University, but expressed an interest in transferring to Commerce, perhaps to follow his Dad, Mike McGrath – who is currently Managing Partner, CMO at PwC Australia- into the finance world.

There’s also been some confusion in media circles about just how to pronounce “McGrath”; whether to go with the hard ‘th’, as they generally do in North America , or the Australian way with what becomes a silent ‘t’.

In Canada, it certainly had the hard ‘th’. His Dad still uses that pronunciation.

But Andrew?

“I’ve given up,” he said, with resignation.

Top talents stirring Canada’s tennis future

The 2017 Australian Open has been run and won, and Canada’s search for its first Grand Slam singles winner has stretched for another tennis tournament. We have high hopes for world number four ranked Milos Raonic, but where else can Canada look for its maiden title?

Melbourne Park is abuzz with activity every January as the world descends upon its expansive grounds to take in the Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific, the Australian Open. As ever, the blistering heat has the crowds searching for any shade available, with water and beer supplies no doubt being stretched to the limits.

But all eyes are on the tennis, with some of the world’s biggest names doing battle to take out one of the biggest prizes in the sport.

For Canada, alas, the wait for its first Grand Slam champion continues, with highest hope Raonic knocked out in the quarter finals by eventual runner-up Rafael Nadal.

Raonic, to his credit, continues to work hard on improving his game and remains Canada’s most likely chance in 2017.

“I think Wimbledon is his big chance,” says Tom Tebbutt, a veteran tennis journalist who writes for Tennis Canada.

“With his serve on grass and the rest of his aggressive game – he should have his best chance at Wimbledon.”

Tebbutt has studied Canadian tennis for decades, and is bullish about the culture and talent brewing at junior levels.

“The health is pretty good largely because of two promising juniors, who aren’t really playing juniors any more despite being eligible,” he said, with Denis Shapovalov (Richmond Hill, Ont), who won the Wimbledon boys title in 2016, and Felix Auger-Aliassime (Montreal), who won the US Open boys title, being those two players. Together they won the 2015 US Open boys doubles title.

“Among the girls there’s a 16-year from Mississauga, Ontario, Bianca Andreescu.  She is one of the top girl juniors in the world.”

Andreescu, who with teammate Carson Branstine won the junior doubles title at this year’s Australian Open, and had an admirable semi-final finish in the singles (particularly with a heavily strapped thigh), spoke to Canada Down Under after her win in the second round of the doubles, and said the culture of Canadian tennis was being fostered by those at the top.

“I think right now tennis in Canada is doing really well, especially with Milos, Genie [Eugenie Bouchard], and all the up-and-coming Canadians,” she said.

“We motivate each other to do well in every tournament, and the support from Tennis Canada is just amazing.”

Andreescu says having the opportunity to play with some of those more experienced players – as well as to represent Canada – was imperative for player development, both for their games and morale. Immediately after the Australian Open, she was headed to Mexico to join the senior Fed Cup team for the first time.

“Oh, it’s amazing – it’s my favourite thing, playing team tournaments, junior Fed Cup, Fed Cup – it’s awesome,” she said, excitedly.

“I really look up to [the older players] and what they do, and I try to picture myself where they are and just keep improving.”

Tebbutt says the junior development in Canada has been heavily influenced by having prominent players in both the men’s and women’s draws.

“Tennis Canada is always trying to raise the profile but there’s nothing like having top players,” he said.

“Eugenie Bouchard made it to number five in the world and played in a Wimbledon final in 2015 but has regressed.

“Milos Raonic has made it to number three and a Wimbledon final 2015. Both could be contenders to win a Grand Slam title someday. Tennis Canada can do all it wants to promote tennis, but having successful players is what really stimulates interest – while the sport has not gone crazy – there’s no question Bouchard and Raonic have created an interest that wasn’t there before 2011.”

With that interest continuing to foster some impressive Canadian talent throughout the junior ranks, and a healthy competitive culture, those days of Canada dwelling in the tennis wilderness could – hopefully – be numbered.

Collingwood’s Canadian – Kendra Heil on the AFLW

For Canadian footballer Kendra Heil, the excitement of being rookie-listed to an AFL club for the debut season of the AFL Women’s competition couldn’t have come at a better time. After missing the 2016 season with her VFL club team, the Eastern Devils, with a knee injury, and initially missing out on the AFLW draft, everything was starting to look up.

Then disaster struck.

“It was a little bit of a roller coaster – I injured my knee last January and had surgery, so I was on the up, everything was starting to feel better, then I didn’t get drafted in the initial draft, so that was a down and then I got picked for the rookie list for Collingwood,” she explained.

“Everything was going really well, and I was training really well and then my knee went again, so it was just devastating.”

For the second year running, Heil, who hails from Toronto, has been forced to make the transition from player to off-field support staff – though finding her place within a new, professional organisation has been difficult.

“I think I could have felt worse if I didn’t have such a supportive environment around me – women’s football is really supportive, not within just our own club or my home club, the Devils, but all the clubs -everybody just gets around each other, so the community around football is really lovely,” she said.

“I was already doing [off-field support] last year for my VFL club, for the Devils – I stand on the sidelines and try to get around everyone – if someone needs a gym partner I go with them – and just try to be a positive influence around everybody as much as I can, because if it lifts them up, it lifts me up.

“With Collingwood it’s a little bit different than with the club team – with the club team you always need lots of volunteers so there’s always something to do, and here there are so many people around that are just so giving with their time and just want to be part of it, so it’s hard to find a spot to fit in, so I might just be number one fan on game day.”

Heil’s journey into AFL has been unique – she would likely be the first professional AFL player who actually took up the game overseas, playing in Canada for the Hamilton Wildcats.

“I started playing footy in Canada, and I got into that because my personal trainer at the time asked if I wanted to try a new sport – he said he’d give me free sessions if I did – and as soon as I went to the first training I absolutely loved it,” she laughed.

“After seeing me play, the coaches of the Canadian team selected me for the Parallel Cup where you play against a team from the States, so I played in that two years in a row, and then I got picked for the International Cup team in Melbourne, and I thought what better time to come a little bit early on a working holiday visa – I played footy for the [VFL side] Eastern Devils and I decided to stay, so my partner and I applied for a visa.”

With the first season of the AFLW about to get underway, excitement levels are building with players and supporters alike – Heil says it’s infectious.

“Everybody’s just so excited about it and the people that aren’t excited, they get just a little taste of it and then they see why everybody has been drawn into it,” she said.

“I’m just hoping that everything runs smoothly with the league and that we showcase exciting football, because that’s the most important thing – we want to make a really good product that we want to play in and people want to watch.”

With on-field involvement with Collingwood clearly having to be kept to a minimum, Heil has turned to what has been a neglected love – art, and is looking to combine her two passions.

“I have an Arts degree from the University of Guelph and I kind of put my art on the backburner when I moved here – before I moved I was doing large-scale murals and really decorative painting. As soon as I got here I didn’t have all my supplies, I drifted back into residential painting and now I’m just starting my painting again because I can’t work, I can’t go on ladders,” she said.

“So I’m doing a series of paintings for Collingwood – I’m going to be doing paintings for all four sections of the club: the AFL, the VFL, the netball women, and the women’s AFL, just to showcase Collingwood, because I’m really thankful for all the support they’ve given me, and I’d like a portion of the proceeds to go a charity of my choice – I’m looking at different cancer and leukemia charities in support of my Dad who passed away.”

The inaugural  AFLW season runs from Friday January 3, with games being played right around Australia. You can find Kendra – who is producing some entertaining AFLW videos – on Twitter. You can see some of her artwork in this AFL Players article.

Canada joins the Cavalry

In the suburbs of Canberra, behind a hotel, down a dirt path and through a tall wire fence, suddenly you’re faced with the luscious green of a pristine baseball diamond – home of the Canberra Cavalry. For any North American, this understated setting would come as a shock, but in Australia, this is baseball: smaller stands, fewer support staff, less amenities.

“When you’re on the field though, those are not things you really think about,” says Josh Almonte.

“Playing here kind of reminds me of early on in my career when I started playing for the Blue Jays, playing in the Appalachian League.”

Almonte, a tall, imposing outfielder who originally hails from New York, is one of six players from the Toronto Blue Jays organisation on exchange with the Canberra Cavalry, plying their trade in the Australian Baseball League this season to gain additional experience and match time in what is their usual off-season.

“At the end of my last season, I kind of wanted to continue getting better,” he said.

“So I got in contact with the front desk for us, and just basically asked them if I could come down here and play for the Cavs and thankfully they said yes.”

Two of the six Blue Jays, Mike Reeves and Andrew Case, are born and bred Canadians. Reeves, a catcher, was born in Peterborough, Ontario, while Case is a pitcher from Saint John, New Brunswick. Both recognise that being in Canberra during an Australian summer playing baseball is probably not what was expected of them. You know, being Canadian and all.

“All Canadians are born with skates, but I was the odd guy to pick up a ball, and fell in love with it ever since,” Case explained.

“I started real young and my parents brought me to the ball park every day just to get myself better.”

Reeves also started young, though his introduction to the sport was a touch more dramatic.

“I grew up with hockey and stuff like that because my Dad was a hockey player at University of Pennsylvania, but my brother got into baseball – he’s ten years older than me, and he was a pitcher, so he always needed someone to be a catcher,” he said.

“I was four, he was fourteen, he was throwing balls at me, and of course I was going to miss one, because I’m four – he knocks out my four front teeth. I go to my mum with my teeth in my hand, and she says ‘next time, catch the ball’, and that’s how baseball started for me.”

While baseball has never been a prominent sport in Australia, there has been some success, with a number of Australian-born players making the grade in MLB. Case says the quality of baseball shows why.

“There’s some good players in Australia, absolutely, and they try to bust their butt trying to get out of here to get the states to get seen, because not all the scouts come all the way to Australia,” he said.

“There’s some good players here, it’s fun and I’m honoured to play against them.”

Reeves agrees.

“It’s actually really good. I wasn’t sure coming out here, but it was better than anticipated,” he said.

“There’s a lot of older guys here that just know how to play the game.”

Reeves says there is an excitement around the game, with support building and more people becoming invested in the sport in Australia.

“The fans here, the ones that do come out, are really for the sport,” he said.

“It’s interesting to see, not always do they know how to cheers and stuff like that, but it’s cool being a part of something that’s definitely becoming bigger.”

With teams right around Australia, the players have already had the opportunity to visit many of the different capital cities, and they are all excited to see as much of what Australia has to offer as they can.

“We’ve been to Brisbane, been to Melbourne and it’s been fun – really nice places, nice cities,” Almonte beamed.

“Can’t wait to go to Sydney and see how that is, but so far it’s been great. I love it.”

Joining Almonte, Reeves and Case on their Canberra adventure are D.J. Davis, Jackson Lowery and Josh DeGraaf.

 You can find information on the Canberra Cavalry and all other ABL teams, as well as fixture information on the ABL website.          

Wayne Gretzky – A Proud Canadian

Icon.

There is really no other word to describe the significance of one of Canada’s most important exports and proud ambassadors, Wayne Gretzky.

Known simply as ‘The Great One’, Gretzky dominated the ice hockey world during his 21-year professional career – he holds or shares 61 records in the NHL including most goals, most assists and most points, and is rightly ranked alongside Mohammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Don Bradman and Babe Ruth as one of the greatest sportspeople of all time.

In Sydney for the Wayne Gretzky Ice Hockey Classic, a series of games being played between traditional rivals Canada and the USA to help promote the game as well as raise funds for the StopConcussions Foundation, Gretzky said he was excited and surprised about how the game is developing in Australia.

“I was genuinely shocked – I didn’t anticipate or expect the size of the audience, I didn’t expect the fans to be so engaged with the game itself,” he said.

“If you walked around the arena a little bit, you saw a lot of Canadians who were there who brought their Australian friends – you could tell that people were teaching their friends the game, and talking about the game.”

Gretzky’s passion for the game is palpable. For someone who flies around the world constantly to promote the ice hockey, he’s lost none of his excitement and love for the sport.

“In Canada at three years old, people are learning how to ice skate – it’s just a part of your life in our country,” he said.

“When you’ve got a country like Australia, that’s a little bit behind as far as knowing the game and understanding the game of ice hockey, when people do see it, there’s something intriguing about it. Kids want to play, kids want to try to skate, parents want to watch their kids skate and play hockey – it really is a wonderful sport.”

A growing concern though for parents with children involved in any sport, including ice hockey, are the dangers of head trauma, which is an area seeing an increase in media attention around the world – and it’s a fear Gretzky knows well. The StopConcussions Foundation aims to increase the understanding around the dangers of concussion in sport.

“I have kids, and they participate, whether it’s bike riding, skateboarding, ice hockey, football and you always worry about concussion, so part of what this whole thing does is raise awareness that concussions are part of sport,” he said.

“Secondly it’s about doing some fact-finding and figuring out how we can prevent concussions. And then thirdly, probably more importantly, what we do, and how we treat people when they do get concussions, and that’s what makes this charity so special.”

When it comes to the game itself, Gretzky has a rich understanding of the rivalry between the two nations competing in the Ice Hockey Classic, and says while it is definitely a fierce rivalry, it’s one built on mutual respect.

“In the 70s and 80s, the rivalry was really Canada and – at that time – the Soviet Union,” he explained.

“The sport of hockey just kept expanding and getting bigger and bigger in the United States and it really got to a new level when, in 1980, the young American team won Olympic gold, and beat the Soviets, and that really propelled the game of hockey. Consequently some of the better athletes in the country, instead of playing tennis or baseball or golf decided look, I want to try to play ice hockey.

“It’s a different kind of rivalry from the Soviets. We were taught as kids that we weren’t supposed to like communism and Soviet people, and so there was more of a hatred that was sort of built into our brains, which turned out not to be true – once we got to know those kids, they were all good people too, you know. Whereas the American rivalry is different because a lot of guys play together for their club teams, so it’s more of a respectful rivalry.”

This has been Gretzky’s first trip to Australia, and while it has been something of a whirlwind, he has had some time to enjoy the city, including tours of the harbour and Taronga Zoo. One of the biggest highlights, however, was getting a taste of Aussie Rules.

“We got to go visit the ‘Swannies’,” he said, referring to AFL club the Sydney Swans, where the team taught him the ins and outs of the game.

“And that was fun because the players were really nice, and we got to walk around the field and go in the locker room – so I got a chance to do a lot of fun things, so it’s been good.”

After his brief Australian adventure comes to an end, and he will return to his adopted home of the United States, Gretzky is quick to ensure everyone knows where his loyalties lie. Anyone who has seen his emotional press conference after his decision to accept a trade in 1988 which saw him leave the Edmonton Oilers – a team he won four Stanley Cups with – to join the Los Angeles Kings, would know how proud he was to play in Canada.

“Oh, it means everything to me. I wouldn’t have anything if it weren’t for my country,” he said, when asked what Canada means to him.

“I live in California, I have five American kids and an American wife. You know, people ask me what nationality are your kids, and I say, well they were born in the United States – they’re American – I want them to be as proud of the United States of America, which they are, as I am about Canada.

“I’m a Canadian through and through – my Dad calls it ‘God’s Country’. They’re the nicest people you could ever meet – very Commonwealth, and, similar to that of Australia, the people are just genuinely nice and I’m always proud to say I was born in Canada and I’m a Canadian.”