Rugby is a fast-growing sport in the Sea to Sky corridor, and the recent Rugby League British Columbia (RLBC) Nines Tournament was proof of that. Though dark clouds loomed in the background for part of May 27’s competition, it did not rain—and even if it did, nothing could have dampened the spirits of the athletes or their fans.
Players from Vancouver, Langley and Surrey took to the field behind Whistler Secondary School (WSS) for a full day of beer, hotdogs and the sport they love. It was the Whistler Wolves’ first time hosting, and all went according to plan. That’s not just because the Wolves emerged on top, earning their first piece of silverware at any official contest. It’s also because the event showcased the local growth of rugby league.
“The skill level from last year’s tournament to this year’s tournament … it’s tremendous how much it’s gone up,” said Wolves captain Josh Michalik. “More people are keen—I think people have their sights on playing in Western Canada and going forward from there.”
New blood, lifelong passion
Take for instance, Alec Reid, one of many Australians who’s made his way to Whistler. Despite being new to the Wolves’ roster, Reid immediately distinguished himself as a tenacious two-way threat, scoring two tries and forcing a critical turnover to help his team vanquish the Point Grey Thunder 22-10 in the Nines Grand Final.
Reid earned nearly unanimous MVP recognition for his dynamic performance on both sides of the ball, but when asked about it, he was quick to share credit.
“It’s my first season in this competition, so I’m new,” Reid said. “All the boys have helped me and welcomed me in with open arms.”
Meanwhile, Michalik has been a cornerstone for the Wolves during their three-year history. His rugby career dates back to high school, where he suited up for the now-defunct Barrie Central Collegiate Institute in Ontario. Michalik won an OCAA championship and a bronze medal in his two years attending Georgian College, but moved to Whistler in 2019 to snowboard recreationally.
The Barrie native had neither friends nor family in the Sea to Sky, so he tried to make connections the only way he knew how—through rugby. Before long, he got in touch with the Squamish-based Axemen, and later joined the Wolves for their inaugural 2021 campaign.
Michalik earned the Wolves’ captaincy by year two. A solid performance at the Canada Rugby League Association (CRLA) East-West trials last fall catapulted him onto the national roster alongside teammate Blake Mahovic. Both helped the Canada Wolverines hold off the USA Hawks 22-10 in a test match in Tampa, Fla.
“It was an eye-opener to see the intensity and the skill level of rugby that I need to get myself to,” Michalik admitted. “Our [national team] captain, Rhys Jacks? Every day, he’s going for a [five-kilometre] run because you need to be in such good shape to play at that level.”
Of course, Michalik is no slouch himself in terms of fitness. He works diligently in the gym and plays both codes of rugby year-round: league with the Wolves in summertime, and union with the Axemen in winter months. Though rugby league is generally faster-paced than union, there are many transferable skills among them.
“Playing both has definitely sharpened my ball skills and just my ability to read the field in both ways,” Michalik explained. “Rugby league has taught me to run sharper lines, and that has boosted my game, and the leadership position with the Whistler Wolves just builds my confidence.”
Wolves head coach Blake Stewart is over the moon about the recent RLBC tournament.
“I couldn’t ask for anything better. People had fun, and it was just a great day for everyone who came down,” he said. “Best nines yet.”
Having played since childhood, Stewart eats, drinks and breathes rugby, but admitted to being “a deer in the headlights” regarding other aspects of operating a non-profit sports club. He is immensely grateful for local sponsors like Tapley’s Pub, Gibbons, and Modern Concept Contracting, as well as help from an unexpected source.
Stewart’s coworker, Cassidy Schaerf, is not a rugby player. She didn’t grow up watching league or union. What she does have is prior experience running non-profit organizations, which she happily offered to Stewart.
Nowadays, Schaerf serves as the Wolves’ treasurer and plays an invaluable role in team operations. She is, as Stewart puts it, “all in.”
“We’ve been very welcomed into Whistler,” he said. “All our sponsors, we cannot thank them enough, because this club would not exist if it wasn’t for people accepting us into their community.”
Stewart and his players believe that they could be the last team standing at the end of the present RLBC campaign as their focus shifts to typical 13-a-side rugby league. Yet, championships were never the main goal. Instead, the Wolves, much like the Axemen, are committed to bringing people together through sport.
Far from being rivals, the clubs share numerous players like Michalik and Mahovic, and they all agree on one thing: more rugby is the goal. It doesn’t matter what code people play—if they’ve got the ball in their hands, they’re levelling up their game and making valuable friendships along the way.