Griffins players enjoyed a variety of athletic pursuits before committing themselves to hockey
Story and photo by Mark Newman
All work and no play makes jack a dull boy. It also produces a one-dimensional athlete.
To reach the professional level, hockey players work countless hours, pushing themselves to improve and spilling a lot of blood, sweat and maybe even some tears in the process.
In the beginning, it’s all about “play,” not “work.”
To reach the NHL, players must have a singular, almost laser-guided focus that allows them to concentrate on their goal to the exclusion of almost all other pursuits.
But like most boys, professional hockey players don’t start with visions of grandeur, stardom or even a career. They start playing because they enjoy it.
Ask any Griffins player if he played sports other than hockey and he will inevitably answer in the affirmative. Before dedicating themselves to the year-round commitment that playing hockey requires, they assuredly tried their hand at other games.
“You name it, I played it,” says Griffins captain Matt Ellis, who quickly rattles off a list that includes baseball, soccer, football, tennis, golf, track and field, and cross country.
“I enjoyed playing all sports growing up, but nothing brought as much excitement to me as hockey did. That was my no. 1 passion from the get-go.”
Whether it was playing the traditional triumvirate of football, basketball and baseball, or less familiar games like lacrosse or curling, Griffins players agree that the experience of playing other sports helped in their development as an athlete.
“I think it’s all about being competitive,” says Griffins forward Eric Himelfarb, who played as much baseball growing up as he did hockey.
“I’ve always been competitive, whether it was hockey or baseball. But it’s also about fun.
“When you play a sport with a bunch of friends, it’s fun.”
Griffins defenseman Derek Meech has fond memories of playing football when he was in his early teens and the thrill of playing in the same stadium where the Winnipeg Blue Bombers played in the Canadian Football League.
“My dad played and coached football, so it was always something I wanted to do,” says Meech, who played halfback. “I had a great time, but I was a little better at hockey, so I stuck with that.”
Griffins winger Darryl Bootland played lacrosse every summer as a kid.
“Lacrosse was my first love,” he says. “Being raised in the Orangeville-Shelburne area of Ontario, you grew up hacking and slashing and you learned pretty quick how to use your stick.”
Like most Griffins, Bootland had to give up other sports when hockey tournaments and summer camps started getting in the way. “I played lacrosse until I was 16,” Bootland says. “I still miss it.”
Josh Langfeld played baseball day and night. He had talent – he once beat future Angels outfielder Darin Erstad in a home run hitting contest – but he finally burned himself out from playing too much.
He still follows the game closely today – he participates in a fantasy baseball league with ex-Griffins Joe Murphy and Jeff Ulmer and he attends major league games in as many ballparks as he can – but his playing days are long over.
Himelfarb still plays in a summer softball league, a pleasant reminder of the days when he was a 12-year-old shortstop and going to the Ontario Baseball Association finals.
“I still remember losing in the finals, in extra innings,” he says. “I remember standing at my position, thinking I couldn’t believe it happened. Any time you play sports, you want to win.”
But whether it’s baseball, basketball, football or hockey, there’s always more to the game than winning.
“Playing other sports not only teaches you skills that you can utilize in your main sport, but they’re also great for learning traits like commitment, dedication, work ethic and what it means to be a team player,” Ellis says.
More than anything, playing other sports will teach a player about the importance of teamwork. For young athletes, it’s a valuable lesson about sacrificing personal goals for the good of the team.
“With almost anything you do in life, you have to work with other people,” Ellis says. “You’re working as part of a team.”
While developing hand-eye coordination and building skills that will serve them well in their chosen sport is important, it’s learning ideals like responsibility and accountability that ultimately might matter most.
“I learned that if I missed volleyball practice for hockey, I wouldn’t be able to play in the game,” Meech says. “Whether it was football or volleyball or hockey, you learned how the individual has to buy into the big program.”
Indeed, most sports are team games, which leads to the single greatest benefit of playing any sport: friendship.
To this day, Ellis says he can name all of the guys with whom he has played over the years. There’s a special connection among athletes that exists, no matter the sport.
“When you play sports, you form those bonds and friendships that you will carry through your life,” Ellis says. “You never lose that connection, even if you’re not in touch with people anymore.”