Photo by Jeff Bell – UltiPhotos.com
When you are a competitive athlete whose last name is Savage, you know your nickname is going to be Savvy. And what is the adjective most attached to the word ‘veteran’ when referring to an athlete? Yes, it’s ‘savvy’. I think we can all agree that after 20 years of competitive Ultimate, Nighthawks O line handler Kirk Savage embodies both inflections; he’s Savvy the savvy veteran.
Savage first picked up Ultimate in high school in 1991. The outreach programme designed to bring Ultimate in particular and discs sports in general to every school in the province of British Columbia was just shifting into high gear when Vancouver Ultimate legends Mike Kaweski and Adam Berson came to University Hill High School, not far from Thunderbird Stadium where the Nighthawks play, and introduced the game to the students. At the time Savage and his buddies were very into hockey, but Kaweski agreed to coach a team and as Savage puts it, “A bunch of us got hooked and the rest is history”.
I can still remember the day when my Vancouver Ultimate League team, whose male component was largely composed of savvy veterans – ‘We’re old and slow, but we still can throw’ – showed up for a game only to be faced for the first time with a team called the Disc Dragons which was made up high school students, including Savage. They of course ran us ragged but we were able to use our superior disc skills and experience to beat them. That didn’t last long; many of the players from the Dragons ended up enjoying long careers in the sport.
Along with several of those high school buddies, Savage made his competitive Ultimate debut in 1993/94 with a newly-formed touring team called Evil Genius, composed largely of the first batch of young guns who had come to Ultimate via that outreach programme. This debut marked the beginning of the endless supply of new talent that has allowed Vancouver to claim its place as one of the top cities for Ultimate on the planet.
Savage looks back fondly on his tenure with that team.
“That was a good group of guys. I still remember going 4-0 at Canadian Nationals in Winnipeg during the first part of the tournament before we came crashing back to reality when Ottawa WAX beat us by a landslide.”
As it happens, one of the leaders of WAX was Andrew Lugsdin, who today coaches Kirk on the Nighthawks.
Savage is known these days as a handler with a wide array of reliable throws, particularly the famous scoober he often uses to break forces or get his team out of tight situations, but things didn’t start out that way.
“I started out as a striker, like most new players do. I loved that part of the game, flat out running and jumping for the disc. I started handling when I played league with Gen X and later with UBC, mostly out of necessity. It turns out that it is difficult to find good throwers.”
“For me, throwing did not come naturally. I spent an unbelievable amount of time practising my throwing. I subscribe to Malcolm Gladwell’s idea that it takes 10,000 hours of effort to become an expert at something; I certainly put my time in. It took me years to throw a decent backhand, one of the reasons that I had to learn other throws, like that scoober!”
Given the throwing skills he was hard at work developing, it wasn’t long before he made the jump to Vancouver’s top touring team, Furious George, for whom he enjoyed a long career and earned many honours. I asked Savage to list some highlights.
“I am very proud of many things, as I have been blessed with a fantastic Ultimate career. The highlights will always be the big wins. Worlds 98 was the first time a Canadian team won it all. Winning the UPA (North American) Championship in 2002 was also a first. And of course winning Worlds in 2008 was amazing as it was in front of friends and family. Playing for Canada has always been a highlight for me, and playing for all 3 World Games teams is something no other open player has done. Coming out of retirement and playing for Canada in 2012 and for the Nighthhawks this year has been pretty cool too!”
When you’re a handler with confidence in your throwing skills, there’s one kind of teammate you like the best; a good receiver with whom you are in sync. It only takes a quick glance or nod and you know he will be striking to a spot where you can deliver a disc only he can reach. Thus, I wasn’t surprised when Kirk named current Nighthawks Assistant Coach Jeff Cruickshank as his favourite teammate, as I had always remarked how they were able to find each other on the field with the type of pass that shreds the other team’s defense.
“Favourite teammates? Jeff. We had an uncanny connection on the field that does not come along very often. I also really enjoyed playing with Luggy [Andrew Lugsdin], Al Bob [Al Nichols, an Assistant Coach with the Nighthawks], and MG [Mike Grant, another legendary product of the high school outreach programme in Vancouver].”
You know you’ve had a long career when three of your favourite teammates are now coaching you. Savage had already retired from competitive Ultimate once, so I wondered if he was thinking of retiring again.
“Thinking of retirement is easy, as in ‘I am supposed to be retired!’. I have enjoyed this season. Would I play next year if that were an option? I don’t know. Maybe. As far as keeping in shape, I find that to be the hardest thing to maintain as I have aged. I play ball hockey and ice hockey very regularly over the winter, which helps, but playing competitive Ultimate is tough, a young man’s game. I have teammates on the Nighthawks who were not even born when I started playing!”
I asked him about his experience with the Nighthawks this year.
“Obviously the winning part has not been what I had hoped for, but I have enjoyed the experience so far. The competition is certainly top notch…and as an athlete that is what we look for. I am glad that I signed on for this season and plan on finishing the season on a high note.”
I asked Lugsdin to put on his GM hat and tell me why he signed Savage for the team.
“I knew coming in that offence was going to be one of areas on the Nighthawks that we would have to shore up. If Kirk was prepared to commit to the team then I knew that he would help us out offensively. Also, Kirk has won a lot before in his career and knows how win, I wanted that on what is mostly an inexperienced roster.”
“Kirk’s biggest attribute is that he’s an unbelievable competitor. He just finds a way to get it done. I have faith, built on years of experience, that Kirk will come through in pressure situations. He’s really good at throwing into spaces and will go get the disc either in a reset situation or by striking long. He’s also the kind of guy that I want to play on big D points because again he finds a way to make a play somehow.”
Lugsdin the coach also counts on Savage’s leadership skills.
“Kirk isn’t someone who’s always talking in huddles or getting in guys faces regularly. Rather, he picks his spots. Usually, it’s when we’re struggling a little bit and that fire that burns inside him sneaks out. He’ll first chastise the team for what we’re doing wrong and then fire us up. He’ll also come and talk to me periodically if he thinks we need some form of adjustment so I can address it with the team.”
“Most importantly, Kirk sets an example for everyone by doing everything he can to help the team win.”
I asked Lugsdin about his memories of playing with Savage during their long shared tenure with Furious George.
“I have lots of great memories of playing with Kirk, as we’ve gone through some unbelievable times battling through games together. Winning World Championships, winning some UPA titles, and some improbable comebacks all come to mind. The thing that’s most memorable for me though is that in the highest pressure moments of our biggest games, when Kirk had the disc, he would just hone in on me and find a way to get me the disc. Whether it was a blade into a narrow space or a hammer to the corner of the end zone, he would figure out how to get it to me and, fortunately for us, it worked out more often than not. We always had a strong connection on the field and the respect that we earned from each other over the years will last for our lifetimes.”
Another Nighthawks coach benefiting from being able to draw on Savage’s savvy is Greg Shiring, who calls the O line subs.
“Having Savvy on the O line brings confidence and calmness to the team. We’re very fortunate to have him playing this year.”
“He’s been through it all, won all the championships you can name, been a starting handler on some of the greatest teams ever to play, and he brings all that to the table with every move he makes out on the field. In so many ways, Savvy is the quintessential Ultimate player. He does so many things well, from his throws, to the way he sees the field, to his athleticism, to his understanding of the game, and you throw all that into a guy who will scratch and claw and do whatever it takes to succeed, and that is Kirk.”
“I remember him always challenging guys to play 500, which is a game where a group gathers to catch hucks. Savvy didn’t care if you were taller than him, and in fact he seemed to enjoy the challenge of taking on taller guys. I remember being impressed that he always caught more than his fair share of the throws.”
“The more you’re around him, the less surprised you are at such things, and you just come to expect that he’ll deliver whatever the situation is. The home crowd at Thunderbird Stadium got a good dose of that earlier this year, when Savvy was awarded the team MVP for a game after flying around the field making tough grabs, nailing tight throws at high stall counts, getting open at crucial times, and playing with an intensity that brought the whole team to a higher level of play.”
“And on top of all this, he is a hell of a nice guy. Hmm, if I keep talking I’ll have to nominate him for mayor, so I’d better stop there…”
It makes sense to think of Savage’s participation in the Nighthawks’ debut season as the cherry on top of a very tasty career. If he decides to come back next year as a 40-year-old, he’ll be welcomed with open arms, but if he decides to retire again, he can be very proud of being an integral part of writing the latest chapter in Vancouver’s illustrious place in the history of Ultimate.
I’ll give him the last word.
“Ultimate has been very good to me and it has been a pleasure to have played for great teams and with amazing teammates.”
You next watch Savvy at work this coming Saturday at 7 p.m., when the Nighthawks host San Francisco Dogfish at Thunderbird Stadium. You can pick up tickets here.