It is only natural that Vancouver and Seattle are great rivals, in Ultimate and in life.
They are both the western outliers among their respective countries’ large cities, and are situated less than 200 kilometres apart.
And so it begins. The Seattlites will say the distance is less than 120 miles.
Seattle is renowned for being the home of Starbucks, but Vancouver is equally renowned for its coffee culture. Until recently there were two Starbucks kitty-corner from each other on one of the busiest intersections in Vancouver. (The one that closed was replaced by, you guessed it, a different coffee shop.) So why should Seattle get all the credit?
Vancouverites wonder why Seattlites refer to the Pacific Northwest when it is clearly in the southwest.
Seattle points to nearby Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker for skiing and other mountainous pursuits. Vancouver responds by pointing out you can take rapid transit right to the ski hills on the north edge of the city.
Vancouver boasts about building rapid transit and bike lanes to get people out of cars. Seattle seems to always be building freeways and tunnels.
You get the idea. Seattle and Vancouver are similar but different enough to make it into something like a sibling rivalry.
In Ultimate terms, the rivalry got off to a rocky start in 1983 when the first team in BC, Victoria’s Flying Islanders, ventured down to a tournament in Seattle, the first time they had played anyone but themselves, and their very first competitive game ever was against the top seeded Seattle team. Let us just say that game was mercifully brief.
This set a template that held for the next 15 years, with Big Brother always beating Little Brother. Vancouver’s first Ultimate team was founded in 1985, but even though the Vancouver league grew rapidly and engendered touring teams that did well on the national and international level, when the Vancouver touring teams ventured south there was always a roadblock in the form of Seattle Sockeye.
But by the mid-1990s Vancouver Ultimate was taking some very positive steps. Nighthawks veteran Kirk Savage remembers some of the factors that catalyzed the change.
“Because we had become the best team in Canada, we gained invaluable experience playing the top teams in the world during our multiple World Championship runs while representing Canada. This was experience that Sockeye and the other American teams rarely got, which made our team and players better and better, creating a positive feedback loop. We learned how to win.”
And by then the strong high school Ultimate programme in Vancouver was bearing fruit. “1997 was the first year that [Nighthawks assistant coach] Jeff Cruickshank, Evan Wood, and me became top players, followed in ’98 by Joey Hossain, Mike Grant, Greg Liburd, Mike Ens and others,” says Savage.
So now the Vancouver open team, by then known by the famous Furious George monicker, had depth and experience. The final factor that made the difference was the arrival of Nighthawks coach/GM Andrew Lugsdin in Vancouver after a number of years leading the Ottawa Wax dynasty out east.
Recalls Savage, “Luggy moved to Vancouver in 1996 and became captain of Furious in ’97. His leadership, strategy, and strong play put us over the top.”
So finally Little Brother was ready to challenge Big Brother.
Nighthawks assistant coach Greg Shiring has an unique perspective on the rivalry because he played for both teams. I asked him what he remembers from those years.
“One thing I remember very clearly was the turning point, in 1998.”
“Both Seattle and Vancouver have strong Ultimate traditions. During the mid ‘90s Seattle had a core of solid veterans, while Vancouver had an explosive group of young talent that kept playing together year after year and getting better and better. In 1997 Seattle Sockeye still had the upper hand, and during the World Championships that Vancouver hosted that year we met up with Furious George in the semis. It was a great battle, with Seattle coming out on top and going on to win the world title. But it was clear that Vancouver was knocking on the door and continuing to get better and hungrier every year.”
“The turning point came at the Regional Championships the next year. Vancouver and Seattle played twice. In pool play, Seattle came out and started pounding Vancouver and it looked like the game would play out as it had in recent years, with Seattle taking a 7-0 lead. But Furious made some adjustments and ramped up the intensity, leaving the Seattle team stunned as Vancouver battled back and pulled off the victory. It was a punch in the nose to what was then the big brother in the relationship. The two met later to settle the score in a qualifying game, with the winner advancing with a chance to go to US Nationals.”
(Curiously, all three Nighthawk coaches played on these teams, with Greg on Seattle at that time and Andrew Lugsdin and Jeff Cruickshank playing with Vancouver.)
Greg continues, ”This time, Vancouver had a new level of confidence with the earlier win under their belts, and came out with a wide-open offense where teammates cleared space for each other very well, and they were extremely efficient with the disc. They seemed to score with ease in very few passes, and numerous successful hucks, while Seattle was struggling to punch the disc in. In the end, Vancouver dominated the game and sent a Seattle team that had absolutely dominated the west coast for three years home licking their wounds. This was the beginning of a stretch of successful years for Vancouver Ultimate that lead to numerous world and national championships over the next decade. Luckily for me, I had the opportunity to play with Vancouver in 2000 and got to experience their high-flying, hard-nosed style of Ultimate that teams throughout the region and the world came to respect and admire. “
So now the rivalry was in full bloom, two of the best teams in the world, evenly matched, playing each other year after year in the big games. Jeff Cruickshank remembers those years fondly.
“From my perspective this rivalry is among the best in the history of the sport. The proximity of the cities means we attend a lot of the same tournaments and of course, meet every year during the US fall series at both Sectionals and Regionals as well as the US Championship tournament. For many years in the early to mid 2000s, Vancouver and Seattle were the two best teams in Ultimate, each winning 3 UPA titles (Vancouver in 2002, 2003 and 2005; Seattle in 2004, 2006 and 2007). We beat Seattle in the final in 2005 and they returned the favour in 2006.
We played each other so often that there were no strategic secrets; it all came down to who executed the best on any given day. Seattle was the team we loved to hate, but loved to play a lot because they were a great team and a measuring stick for how well we were playing. Playing Seattle as much as we did is partly why we got as good as we did. They always had some innovative defensive wrinkles and a top-notch offense and most games we played were decided by a couple of points at most.”
With so many big games between the team, each participant has their own favourite memories. Nighthawks co-captain Oscar Pottinger zeroes in on the 2008 World Championships, held in Vancouver.
“We had played Seattle a number of times that year but hadn’t managed to beat them even once before that tournament.”
“The final time we played them was in early July, approximately a month before the tournament started, in a small prep tournament. We went down to Seattle and played a few teams on Saturday and Seattle on Sunday. It was a cold blustery morning and they got off to a quick start. We tried to battle back in the middle portion of the game, but our captains’ encouragement fell on deaf ears and we lost the game going away. I think the final score was about 15-5. We got crushed in every aspect of the game.”
“This was our last tune-up game against Seattle, as we knew it all too well, so we were feeling pretty bad about ourselves. But in our post game team huddle Luggy [Andrew Lugsdin] addressed the team in the way only he could, telling us calmly but defiantly that we would win Worlds. He believed it, so we believed it, and the rest is history; Canada was crowned the champion at Worlds in Vancouver in 2008 versus a devastated US team from Seattle.”
Kirk Savage remembers that well.
“For me, the biggest victory over Seattle was at Thunderbird Stadium in 2008 where they represented the USA and we represented Canada. They were heavy favourites to win and we were the ‘washed up has-beens’. What happened that day was nothing short of amazing; 5000 hometown fans cheering us on to a great victory where many of us turned back the clock and dug deep to win one last time together. This was probably the best example of how we triumphed when the stakes were the highest.”
Nighthawks co-captain Morgan Hibbert remembers a more recent encounter.
“The 2011 Northwest Regionals win was really big. Aside from some early season games involving tryout players, Vancouver had not beaten Seattle since Worlds in 2008. Considering we play each other up to five times a year, that was a lot of losing. It also meant that due to the roster turnover after that win at Worlds the majority of current Vancouver players had never beaten Seattle. But the Saturday pool play at 2011 Regionals changed all that. Vancouver beat Seattle in a battle and the Vancouver young blood got their first taste of how sweet it is to beat their #1 rivals.”
“Despite our many losses to Seattle over the years they hadn’t actually ended our season since 2006 when we lost to them in the US Championship finals. As it happened, in the last game of those Regional finals in 2011, we met Seattle in the game that decides who would move on to play Portland for a spot in the US Championships, with the loser heading home, season over. For Seattle to meet Vancouver in anything but the final game in an elimination game was very strange indeed. We won decisively, ending Seattle’s season and resulting in them not going to the US Championships for the first time in eleven years.”
“In back to back games, on adjacent days we twice managed to do what we had failed to do even once in the previous three seasons. You could say it was somewhat satisfying, but you’d be understating things.”
So there you have it, a storied rivalry more than two decades old, to be carried on into MLU. It starts with the Nighthawks’ first MLU game in Seattle this coming Saturday at 7 pm with three more regular season meetings to come, and I wouldn’t bet against another matchup in the playoffs. I certainly wouldn’t want to miss any game between these two teams.