You’ll have to forgive Cal Kowcun for getting a little misty-eyed as the clock hit zero on last night’s men’s basketball rec league playoff game at Duckworth Centre. His team, Old School, had just staged an impressive comeback attempt in the game’s waning minutes, but ultimately came up short, losing 53-39 to an opposing team of energetic, much darker-haired gentlemen clad in red pinnies. The score mattered little as Kowcun faced the reality of closing out the team’s 40th — and possibly final — season of play in the Fort Garry Brewing Company Super Men’s Basketball League.
“At least we had one good quarter,” he said with a shrug.
Add that one good quarter to the countless that preceded it. The team now known as Old School began play in 1978 as the St. Vital Hotel Patrons — named in honour of their preferred watering hole at the time — with Kowcun as a founding member.
“A bunch of Glenlawn (Collegiate) alumni decided we wanted to keep playing basketball,” said Kowcun, who also moonlights as a quality manager at New Flyer Industries. “Back then there were 16 teams in the league. We finished tied for eighth, had to playoff to get into playoffs, and then we ran the table. One of the games we played against the Portage Beavers and beat our (current) Premier (Brian Pallister) — he’s a pretty good ball player.”
Since then, Kowcun has witnessed many changes in the league — including a two-year stint that involved playing games against a team at Stony Mountain Institution — all with him and fellow founding teammate Glen Parsons as a constant. That’s not to say the team hasn’t faced its own share of changes, from multiple names to an overhauled roster with faces young and…less young. According to Kowcun, the qualifications for joining the team are stringent.
“You were a neighbor of Tim Jones, who was one of our regulars,” he said, pointing to teammate Glen (Milt) Middleton.
“And Tim recruited me because my name’s Tim, and he knew he was retiring and had to replace [the name],” added Tim Kist, another team member.
Of course, celebrity doesn’t hurt your chances of landing a spot on the team, such was the case with two alumni — actor Tom Jackson and TSN anchor Derek Taylor.
So what keeps Kowcun and his teammates coming back every year? Camaraderie, competition, and an excuse to grab beers together are among the reasons behind the streak. But even those factors can’t prevent the inevitable passing of time — and all that comes with it.
“I knew it was time to consider retiring when I played against a guy that dated my daughter,” said Middleton.
Still, the passion for the game burns bright within the team, and Kowcun credits a well-run program and facilities at The University of Winnipeg and a vibrant local basketball community for helping to push it this far.
“There’s 12 divisions of 10 teams — that’s not bad for a city our size,” said Kowcun. “For me basketball has always been about only needing a pair of runners and a ball.”
“Some of us need a pair of hands and we still haven’t found them,” quipped Kist.
Kowcun never imagined his weekly activity would turn into a multi-decade legacy, and takes the blame for making the team stick it out this last year to reach its 40th anniversary. But with that milestone now achieved, is it the end of a legendary franchise?
“Yeah, yeah” said Kowcun confidently.
“He says it now,” interjected Kist.
“If we get young guys committed to playing I’d come back,” added Middleton.
Maybe best to check back in a few months’ time. As this reporter turned to leave Duckworth Centre, murmurs of giving it one more go could be overheard from a team huddle.
And so hope remains for a 41st season — for old school’s sake.
Communications Officer, The University of Winnipeg