Whitehorse Daily Star

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Photo by Photo Submitted

READY TO RIP IT – A bike polo player winds up during a game at Hillcrest hockey rink in Whitehorse this spring. Commissioner Ashwin Freyne is in the background.

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Photo by Morris Prokop

IN THE NET – The ball eludes a player on its way into the net during a bike polo game last night at the Hillcrest hockey rink in Whitehorse.

Whitehorse Bike Polo hosting big tourney this weekend

Whitehorse Bike Polo is hosting a big tournament this weekend.

By Morris Prokop on September 3, 2021

Whitehorse Bike Polo is hosting a big tournament this weekend. The action goes this Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to approximately 6 p.m. at the Hillcrest outdoor hockey rink in Whitehorse, located off of Kluane Crescent at the end of Sunset Drive.

Biko polo normally takes place every week at Hillcrest every Thursday at 7 p.m. They have started playing on Tuesdays as well – kind of a rookie night, now that the players are getting better, according to the commissioner of Whitehorse Bike Polo, Ashwin Freyne.

“It used to be everyone was just learning, but now people are actually getting pretty good, so newer players … we’re trying to accommodate them as well. You have an option to come on Tuesday and just try it out now in an easier setting.”

Freyne says the sport itself is really new.

“It was invented in Seattle in 1999, by old bike couriers who were taking breaks between their shifts. The sport of polo is incredibly old.” (Polo was introduced into India by Muslim conquerers in the 13th century).

According to Freyne, bike polo itself was invented by people in Ireland that couldn’t afford polo ponies.

Just this year, bike polo clubs started in Cairo, Egypt, and London, Ontario. The Cairo club is a sister club of the Whitehorse bike polo club, which started in May of this year. Freyne relates how the club came about.

“I used to play bike polo in Ottawa when I was there, and … I was racing in an Alley Cat Messenger race in Ottawa and I met a guy who was into it. I went and showed up and tried it out a few times and really liked it.

When I came up here, I really missed it, but it took a while for me to meet enough people to think ‘ok, I can actually start something.’

“So this year I finally made the move and invited a bunch of my friends and put up posters and posted it all over the place and the first day I think we had six people, which I think is really good, because that’s all you need for a game. Then every single Thursday since, we’ve played. I don’t think we’ve skipped a single one in the last four months. And it’s grown. It’s like a really big community event.”

On Thursdays, on a rainy night, they may have about nine people, but if it’s beautiful weather, they’ve had as many as 25 people come out. Neighbours come by and watch, people bring their kids, and there can be quite a few people milling around the court-side.

Bike Polo is three players versus three players on a hockey rink. They play 12-minute games, or the first team to five goals, whichever comes first.

“You bike around with a mallet – kind of looks like a croquet mallet, but it’s made of an old ski pole, and a piece of ABS piping,” explains Freyne.

“There’s only three rules. If you put your foot down on the ground when you’re riding around, you have to ride back to centre court, like a mini power play, before you can re-enter the play. You need to hit the ball in with the small end of the mallet, just to make it even harder, and you need to be nice to the other players. Don’t be a jerk.”

Much like pick-up hockey, everyone throws their mallets into the centre, and then they are split up to form two teams of three players.

Whitehorse bike polo matches have a unique way of starting out.

“The game starts with a joust,” explains Freyne. “The ball is in the centre of the court, and the two teams have their back wheels up against either board, on either side. When someone calls ‘three, two, one, polo’, two players from either side will put their bikes as fast as they can directly at each other and the ball, and that’s how the game starts off, and then it just resets between goals. There’s only one joust, and you just try to get to five points before the other team does, or before the time runs out.”

Hockey nets are used, but a lot of it is Do It Yourself. Pie plates are put up so players can hit those with the ball. They make all their own equipment. A lot of their bikes came from the dump, and some of them come free from Facebook Marketplace. The bikes are then fixed up at Cyclelogical or the player’s own back yards.

“We try to make it really inclusive,” says Freyne. “So you don’t need expensive equipment. It’s co-ed. That’s a pretty important part of it. So basically try to make it so that everyone’s welcome.”

“There’s a lot of expensive sports in Whitehorse. You look at mountain biking, and people tell you you need this bike to get into it, or back country skiing. They’re kind of elitist in a way, even if they’re not trying to be, so (I) kind of like actively do the opposite. You need nothing. I have six extra bikes for people … who just show up.”

Freyne relates how the tourney came about.

“I realized the best way to actually cement it would be to have a tournament, so the local players could see it’s not just some random thing that I invented. I put the word out to a bunch of other clubs – to the Anchorage club, the Vancouver club, Calgary club, the Ottawa club, the Montreal club – and one guy from Burwash Landing as well, and someone from Carcross, and they’re all sending people. So I’ve got about 20 out-of-towners and 20 locals.

The two days of the tourney will be set up quite differently.

“You get shuffled around on different teams the entire first day,” explains Freyne. “And I’m going to keep track of how many games everyone wins on their different teams, and create a ranked system, and then on Sunday I will produce teams that are composed of equally strong players … that’s like the same idea of trying to make it pretty inclusive. Even if you suck, you can still have a chance of winning this thing.

“I’m going to be up pretty late Saturday, masterminding all the teams to make it work.

“I know a lot of the players, but there’s quite a few coming I never met, so it’s pretty incredible.

They’re just flying all the way to Whitehorse, or driving all the way to Whitehorse from all over the place. Many of them are coming for Friday and leaving on Monday, so it’s not even part of a bigger vacation. They’re just coming over to play the tournament, visit a town they’ve never seen.

“So it’s like a real nice social event. There’s not really any other sport that’s like that, because …. you wouldn’t fly to Anchorage to go play another pickup basketball team.”

Everyone that’s flying up to play is being put in housing of local players – billeting, as it were.

“The one guy that’s billeting with me is organizing a tournament in Montreal in a few weeks,” says Freyne. “And they’ve got players coming from Atlanta and New York and California. There’s a draw to visit Montreal, but you can convince people to visit basically anywhere it seems like if you throw a good event.”

Thirty-nine players are registered for the tournament, so Freyne will be creating 13 teams for Sunday’s action. There will be four games continuously taking place every hour throughout the course of the day. Registration is full. “I turned down someone from Austin, Texas that wanted to fly up, I turned down two folks from Victoria, a couple people from Montreal … one guy is coming from Anchorage just in case there’s room.”

“I would encourage people to come watch the tournament for sure, cause it’s on the same weekend as Wonder Horse (a festival in Yukon).

“And then on Thursdays … just come, say hi, watch, play if you want.”

“I got amazing sponsorships from like Icycle, Cadence – I’ve have so many sponsors I can’t list them off the top of my head. Almost every small business in town supported me,” says Freyne.

Prizes include some biking books from Mac’s Fireweed Books, a skateboard from Freestyle, some hats and t-shirts from the 98 Hotel, bike gear from Cadence, coffee from various coffee houses, and many gift cards from local businesses. They will all be given away at the tournament.

As for the tournament itself, Freyne is feeling “pretty excited, but a bit nervous. I’m been watching the weather a lot.

We’ll play rain or shine, but it’d be nicer to play shine.

There’s just been so many moving parts, from billeting people, to doing a little bit of food for people, renting a porta-potty, getting the lights set up for the evening – not that we’re playing very late. Just like so many little things. It’s like planning my wedding. It’s just like on your wedding day. You need to remember to have fun yourself.”

“When I originally organized it, I totally forgot to put myself in it. I was like, perfect we have the exact number of people. And then I was like ‘oh, no, I didn’t put myself in, but someone dropped out, and I took their spot, so yeah, I’m playing in it as well.”

After the tournament, Freyne has some possibilities in mind.

“I think we’ll play ‘til the snow flies. I was thinking about doing a simple one-day tournament, maybe in the very end of the season, like October … cause there are a lot of local players that aren’t able to play in this tournament. Something small like six teams – just locals only.

“All the neighbours are on board, so it’s nice to have that support.”

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