“With all this snow across the province, who doesn’t remember how perfect it can be for making a snowball?”
I am distractedly listening to the CBC call-in show Alberta at Noon. Host Holly Preston is asking Matt Smith, one of the members of a group called the Canadian Snow Battlers, about the game of Yukigassen—Japanese for SnowBattle.
“It’s sort of like a combination of paintball and dodgeball,” he tells her.
Because I live in Jasper, the host community of the Canadian National Yukigassen Championships for four years running, I have not only heard of this kooky competition, but I have a modicum of an idea of how it works. I know, for example, that teams of seven chuck pre-made snowballs at each other until either one team is eliminated or one team captures the other’s flag. I know that if a competitor gets hit by a snowball, steps outside the court boundaries, or goes offside, they’re eliminated. I also know that, this year, Tourism Jasper was looking for local teams to participate, which is why I agreed to register a squad with a few of my hockey buddies.
What I didn’t realize, was just how serious of a sport this is.
“We have a training course on my acreage…we go out there, start running drills and scrimmaging,” I hear Smith tell a cooing Preston.
Say what? Training course? Drills? All of a sudden I’m at full attention. I get on the phone to my buddy Clayton, who signed us up.
“I think we need a game plan,” I say to him.
Later that day, sitting in the Jasper Brew Pub with a few of my fellow Beavers (our team name), my anxiety about being unprepared for battle is being drowned in pints of Friday afternoon beers. Looking around the table I figure we’ve got a pretty solid bunch, even though we are all snow battle rookies. There’s Clayton, who I know has a good arm; Ryan and myself who are small and quick; Geoff: lanky, agile and strategic; Christian, for the intensity factor; and Justin, an athletic
all-rounder. Clanking our glasses with bravado, we all agree: we’ve got this.
Skip to 7:30 a.m. and my head is ringing and my phone is pounding. No wait, that’s my phone is ringing and my head...doesn’t matter. Clayton is on the line, reminding me that our team committed to an 8 a.m. Yukigassen photoshoot with the visiting Japanese celebrity team. Getting hit with a snowball can’t possibly hurt worse than this headache, I tell myself. Right?
Wrong. As I look around for a good place to vomit (just in case), I get beaned by the first of many snowballs of the day. Because the sun has barely poked over the mountains, it’s cold in Jasper this morning. The machine-molded snowballs, which are rapidly turning to ice as the videographers set up their angles, are a bit bigger and heavier than a baseball, making them the perfect size and weight for someone with a practiced arm to do some serious damage. As my four-pints-deep-imagined speed advantage has been rendered invalid by said pints, I’m a sitting duck for the nimble, focused Japanese team. Their handler assures us their celebrity statuses are based on film and television careers, but I’m not so sure at least one of these guys didn’t pitch for the Yokohama Bay Stars.
Later that morning, after the world’s best hangover antidote, a breakfast wrap from Coco’s Café, I trudge over to the main Yukigassen grounds. There, next to the Red Bull tent and the beer gardens (which, disconcertedly, Justin is starting to eye up), is a gang of dudes decked out in team Canada sweatsuits. Their confident air tells us this is the championship team.
Mind you, they’re not the only ones with swagger. I see one participant jogging to the registration booth in only a long john unitard and a jockstrap; if you’re going to rock that getup you better strut, I figure. As for our team, we’re not so much strutting as we are lurching. We limp our way to the snowball tent, where we get schooled in the proper way to load, stamp and extricate 90 snowballs from a metal mould. With hands dulled from the cold and brains dulled from last night’s escapades, an efficient munitions factory we do not make. A Yukigassen veteran rolls his eyes as our snowballs come out lumpy and covered in grass.
“Those are terrible,” he declares.
Just as we get the hang of snowball making, we’re scheduled for our first match. Off come the toques and winter coats, on go the face shields and pinafores. Although we had designated positions and charted out patterns at the pub, now that we’re facing off against a real live team, all the strategy goes out the window. Ryan gets pegged within two seconds of the referee’s starting whistle; I accidentally step out of bounds; and Justin, unable to contain his competitive instinct, makes an ill-advised dash for the flag. He pays the price, getting pelted mercilessly, and our team loses our first game.
Switching ends for the next game (matches are decided best two out of three), we attempt to regroup. We decide Christian will ferry snowballs up to Ryan and Justin’s forward positions, flanks Clayton and myself will get resupplied by Geoff and Ramsey (a last minute Beaver pickup) and we’ll all try to be more patient. A minute into the round the plan seems to be working; we knock off a couple of their forwards with a trick we learned from the Japanese celebrity team: arching snowballs so they drop just behind the other team’s barriers. As I really don’t want the outside of my body to hurt as much as my insides, I’m hoping the other team is also employing this “delicate-touch” tactic. Of course, just as that thought is forming, I hear, then see, a howitzer coming right for me. Bending my body in a way that my yoga instructor would surely disapprove of, I avoid the brunt of the ice missile. Unfortunately, it still nicks my coat sleeve.
“Number three, you’re out!” screams my normally sweet-natured friend Megan, who’s volunteering as an official. I don’t argue with her; more enemy fire is heading my way. From the sidelines, I warn my teammates of opposing players who have their eye on our goal and alert them when our competition is running low on snowballs. Making a run for it, Ryan manages to yank their flag and tie the series.
Later, with a few rounds under our belts and a begrudging respect growing for the teams who are advancing in the round-robin format, the Beavers are sitting at three wins, one loss. By this time, we can make 90 perfectly spherical snowballs in less than five minutes, our game has some semblance of structure and, most importantly, the peak of our hangovers have come and gone. We are set to square off against a team called the Mung Munchers in a winner-advances, loser-goes-home showdown. The tension is palpable. Justin, having just emerged from a quick trip to the beer garden, really wants to win. Ryan, whose complexion is that of the dirt and grass covered snowballs we made this morning, really wants to go home.
The whistle sounds. As usual, I get nailed early, and am relegated to the sidelines. While I am licking my wounds, the carnage really starts to pile up. An opposing player gets smoked in the ear from behind—a victim of friendly fire. Clayton takes a once-bouncer to the junk, which, because it hit the ground first, doesn’t eliminate him, but as he’s writhing in pain he leaves himself wide open; snowballs reign down.
Dwayne, another fill-in Beaver, has really taken to Yukigassen, which is amazing, considering he comes from Jamaica. He’s dive rolling, yelling out commands to our defense and executing leap-throws. And my brother in law, Chris, who has shown up from Grande Prairie, is proving his utility as the only Beaver without a desecrated liver. Despite his athleticism, the fact that we didn’t really explain the rules as he rushed onto the court ultimately does him in when he steps over the back line, putting himself off-side.
Soon, Christian is the last man standing. Although he’s fending off the rival forwards’ advances for our flag with accurate throws, there is a constant stream of heavily-hurled snowballs coming from the Mung Muncher’s back end. Later we learn that the 6-foot-4-guy heaving bombs was scouted as a pitcher for college baseball in the States. Christian can’t focus on all the shrapnel flying through the air and as he bends down to pick up more ammo, he gets beaned by the fastball.
“Ow!” he groans.
“Oooh,” the crowd grimaces.
“Yes!” the Mung Munchers cheer, fist-pumping their victory.
Battered and bruised, we shake hands with our opponents, disappointed that we won’t meet our Japanese training partners from the morning and relieved that we won’t be getting in the way of any more ice bullets. As we make our way to watch Matt Smith and the Canadian Snow Battlers make mincemeat of the teams who don’t have training facilities on their acreages, we agree that even though our evening of strategic planning was actually a night of self-sabotage, our Yukigassen experience was in fact a lot of fun.
Vowing to give it a better go at the Canadian Yukigassen Championships in 2014, I pick up a discarded snowball which has turned into impenetrable ice. Winding up for a headshot at Clayton, who signed us up for this entire debacle, I instead place it on one of the many welts on my arm.