Fastball tradition alive and well at Canada Day tournament

For the better part of 40 years, Bruce "Huckle" Giroux has had Prince George circled on his map of holiday destinations every July 1st long weekend.
Fastball is in his blood and he and his family have a long tradition of making the 10-hour trek west from their home in Driftpile, Alta., to play ball and renew family ties in their pilgrimage to Spruce City Stadium, home of the Canada Day Fastpitch Tournament.
Now 59, Giroux has been coming to the tournament since 1975, when he was 15, and vows he'll be back to play in it with his grandchildren, the oldest of whom is now 10.
"Every year it comes back and I want to keep playing until my grandkids are old enough," he said.
It's already a family affair for the Driftpile clan. Huckle's sons Ian and Brydon play on the team, so does his brother Brian and their cousin George Chalifoux. All of them are related to the Potskin family in Prince George which helped start the tournament in 1969.
"It's like a family tradition for us, always coming out here, I love it," said Ian Giroux, 34. "We made a team happen just so my dad can play and we can play. It's a family tradition to keep alive. Being able to step on the field with my dad was something I dreamed about."
Spruce City Stadium opened in 1969, the year of the first Prince George native fastball tournament, and for Ian Giroux it has that classic ballpark feel to it – the Fenway Park of northern B.C.
"I was one when I came here the first year," he said. "I know this place so well, it's like home, and we look forward to this every year."
The Girouxs and their Driftpile LTA Cree teammates did their nation proud Sunday. They won three straight games on the B-side, including a nine-inning thriller against Canoe Lake, before their tournament ended three wins shy of the title in a 7-4 defeat at the hands of Custom Edge Sports, one of the two Prince George teams in the 13-team men's tournament.
Huckle Giroux lacks the speed he once possessed as a national team-calibre shortstop when he ran the bases at Spruce City Stadium with the Driftpile Swingers. But he's still got the tools to play first base and he's a tough out, as Custom Edge pitcher Josh Anderson was reminded in the fifth inning when Giroux's infield hit drove in Driftpile's first run of game.
Gone are the days when the Driftpile team used to bring a camp kitchen and their own cooks to set up in the old KOA campground (now Rotary Soccer Field), where they'd and crash for the night between games. 1986 was a monumental year for Driftpile; the Swingers beat the Prince George Lumber Kings in the final to win the tournament.
"We lost the first game and came back and won seven games in a row - we were all seizing up," said Giroux.
Driftpile lost 7-0 Saturday afternoon to the Big Guy Lake Kings of Prince George. Most of the players on either team are related and that gave special meaning to the post-game handshakes, high-fives and hugs. It wasn’t just a ball game, it was more a family reunion on the field in a three-day gathering of native clans.
“You don’t see that in your typical tournaments at all, this is more a cultural event and it’s all about the bannock and the ball,” said Harley Desjarlais, whose son Lane plays for Custom Edge Sports.
“Prince George has been a destination point for a lot of the families and the tournament is a chance to see each other. It’s like Kentucky basketball, the fans really know the game, they know the players and they know the personalities.
“When we started it was the grandfathers playing and now our sons are starting to play too. Just watching that that legacy go down through the generations is pretty rewarding. The young kids now take such good care of themselves, they’re different athletes now. They spend a lot of time working out and looking after themselves and they’re a lot more disciplined than my generation was.”
The Nak'azdli Pirates and Takla Lakers brought their legions of fans from nearby Fort St. James , as did the Witset Arrows of Moricetown and the two Burns Lake teams – Redskins and Woyenne Nation. All came to Prince George intent on turning their $750 entry fee into a $7,000 payday for winning the whole shebang.
For a young Chad Ghostkeeper, those three tournament days were his chance to make some money. He'd retrieve foul balls at 25 cents a pop and one day brought home $40. By the time he was 15, he was playing in it on a team his uncle Charlie started and that year came one hit shy of the tournament batting title.
"It was very intimidating because you had big boys throwing hard at you," said Ghostkeeper, now 47.
Charlie Ghostkeeper was the driving force behind the tournament until he died of cancer in 2012 and before he died his brother Peter promised him he'd keep it going at least until the 50th year. Rick Charette of Regina started making the trip with a combined Meadow Lake-North Battleford team in 1981 and remembers Charlie phoning once a week in the months leading up to the Canada Day weekend to make sure they were coming.
"They used to have 16 or 20 teams for the A event and you'd have 15 teams in the B event and the stands here were full all the way through," said Charette. "They had motorhomes all along the back wall and people would sit on their lawn chairs and drink beer and watch the games right from there.
"We just made it a tradition and we still bring a team (the Regina Golden Hawks)."
Randy Potskin grew up watching the tournament as a kid and was just 12 when his uncles - Joe, Leonard and George - turned him from batboy to outfielder for a game in Pouce Coupe.
“They put me in left field and told me, ‘Just stand out there,’ and I got two balls,” he said. “Then they tried to hide me in right field and another ball came at me and I caught that one too. I got up to bat and they said, “Don’t swing, just crouch down.’ Three pitches later I was out. I didn’t even swing. Next bat, I got to swing and I actually got a hit.”
Not long after that, Potskin became regular on the men’s field at Spruce City Stadium. Now at 50, he’s missed a few of those tournaments but not many, and he’s had too many hits to count. The tradition of playing on Canada Day weekend is like a steelyard magnet and he’s powerless to resist, especially now that his sons Jarrett and Nicholas play with him on Custom Edge Sports.
“Ever since I started playing there was no going back, being from a family that all played,” Potskin said. “It’s just the people, it’s families, it’s friends, and once you start something that’s gone on that long, people just expect to be going to it every year. Probably half that (Driftpile) team are my relatives and it’s different when you play them, you’re kind of more relaxed. You don’t want to make them look bad but on the same token you don’t want to lose to them.”
Barry Seymour played in the tournament in the '70s and '80's and watched his son Trent pitch for the Big Guy Lake Blazers junior team until Trent was seriously injured in a hunting accident five years ago. The number of teams has diminished over the past couple decades but the quality of play on the field has held strong and the tournament has remains a powerful drawing card that still brings teams from different time zones to Prince George.
"For the longest period of time it was considered the Western Canadians for ball, it always attracted the best teams in the west," said Seymour, a former chief of the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation. "There was a bit of downfall when slo-pitch came in, but we've managed to maintain fastpitch in Prince George.
"It's mostly indigenous because we got involved (in the Spruce City Fastball Association executive) and we're still developing the young kids. My (four) kids grew up around the ball park and I think it's still an important part of our community."


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