FOULDS: Humble heroes in helmets help put focus on true sport
It’s hard to imagine the Vancouver Canucks throwing open the doors to their fans as the B.C. Lions did on the weekend at Hillside Stadium — and as the Canadian Football League club does every year during training camp.
If they did, Canucks’ ownership would probably charge admission, jack up concession prices, threaten lawsuits against any fan carrying a homemade sign and permit autographs and conversations with players only through lawyer-approved intermediaries.
Yes, the Canucks face Boston tonight in Game 7, with the winner claiming the Stanley Cup.
It will be exciting and virtually all of the province will either be at the game, on the streets of Vancouver or glued to TVs elsewhere.
While the Lions will never match the Canucks in popularity, the football club is unmatched in connecting with its fans — and the annual Fanfest on Sunday, June 12, was a shining example of a team that respects its fan base and bends over backwards to ensure its supporters know it.
Not only did the hundreds of kids attending get treated to a free T-shirt — a very cool B.C. Lion-orange Play With the Pros garment — and a free lunch, they were also brought onto the field following a 90-minute practice, where the Lions schooled the orange-clad juniors in a variety of football drills.
For aspiring Leos playing in the Kamloops Community Football system, or for those kids who simply like to toss the pigskin in the backyard, the chance to step onto the pristine field at Hillside and have actual Lions coach them had to be a surreal experience.
Mixed with it all was face-painting, football tossing, a bouncy castle, merchandise sales, fantastic music by Swing Cat Bounce, food and a free draw for tickets to the last game at Empire Field on Sept. 10 against Toronto.
A fan- and family-friendly day to mark the end of Week 1 of training camp also included a chance for Leo followers to meet Lions face-to-face, to talk to Geroy Simon, to joke with Paul McCallum, to ask Travis Lulay some questions on quarterbacking, to get an update on Paris Jackson’s injury — from Jackson himself.
As the Lions fanned out across the field, fans lined up to chat, have their photos taken and collect autographs on everything from jerseys and footballs to hats and hirsute-less heads.
And, with the sun beating down and the desire of fans to meet their heroes undiminished, the Leos stayed for as long as it took.
During their practice, I sat on the sideline with my 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son as they munched on their hot dogs and sipped their drinks.
Gazing across the field, my daughter, who came to the event with great reluctance, was amazed at how fun the day had been — and even more amazed at how accessible the players were.
“Well, they’re just like you and me,” I said.
“Yeah, but they make millions of dollars and they are here, talking to us,” she replied.
When I explained most of the Lions she had met were regular guys who earned not much more than many of their fans, and that many Lions held off-season jobs, my daughter was all the more impressed.
In an era of unfortunate (media-inspired) creations such as Terrell Owens, Barry Bonds and Lebron James, the Lions — and the CFL in general — stand as refreshing beacons of what sport can and should be.
In the process, one sunny afternoon showcasing the humility of the grassroots game can give birth to fans in a form as pure as other professional sports are often putrid.
Of course, all televisions will be tuned into CBC tonight for the big game between the Canucks and Bruins.
But, if you were at Sunday’s Fanfest and are curious as to how the players with whom you mingled look on the field of play, set your PVR for TSN2 (channel 147), which is broadcasting the Lions’ first pre-season game in Calgary tonight.
Kickoff is 6:30 p.m.