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  • Writer's pictureKaren Gasbarino

118 Days: The Toronto Arrows’ Southern Journey

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

118 Days

Just shy of a third of a year.

A third of a year. Two changes of season. A lot can happen in 118 days.

And it is a heck of a long time to be away from family, friends, and your own bed.

But that’s exactly what the Toronto Arrows did for the whole 2021 Major League Rugby season. They left home in March; 40 players and a limited number of staff and coaches, and headed to Atlanta. They stayed in hotels the entire time, getting to know every inch of their temporary home as they fought for turns with laundry machines and jostled for position on one of the two barbeques.

They weren’t entirely alone; Atlanta’s MLR team was a gracious and generous host, sharing all they were able with their Canadian colleagues. ATL did all they could to help make the extended stay as seamless and comfortable as possible for Toronto. It was much appreciated by everyone in the Arrows organization.

Yet, it still wasn’t home. It was still 118 days in the unfamiliar. During a pandemic.

None of this is news to most Toronto Arrows supporters. All who follow the team closely are well aware of their time away. Not just because we couldn’t see any live matches and cheer our team on, but because we had an idea of how big an ask it was. Still in all, the minutiae of day to day life spent living in a hotel and training away from comforts of home, of living rugby day in and day out (never switching ‘off’), none of us can appreciate that.

I sat down with Neil MacDougall, the Toronto Arrows trusty Director of Ticketing Operations/Fan Engagement and overall great guy. He and I chatted about the team’s 118 days away and I learned details that make me bow in reverence and appreciation all over again for what the team endured in the midst of a world-wide pandemic and closed borders.

First, a bit about MacDougall; he grew up on a farm in Zephyr, Ontario. He’s been involved with rugby for two decades, first as a player with the Aurora Barbarians (and a bit for the Ontario Junior Blues) and a year at Western University, where too many concussions facilitated the eventual evolution to more of an administrator, strength and conditioning coach, and managerial role within the game. He worked with Rugby Canada from 2013-17, and Australia’s Melbourne Rebels for the 2017-18 seasons, where he also completed a Master’s Degree in Sport Business and Integrity. He then returned and did more work for Rugby Canada, including as Leinster’s Team Services Manager when they came over to play Canada in 2019.

MacDougall reconnected with Mark Winokur and Bill Webb at that match, leading to his appointment to the Arrows as Director of Ticketing at the end of 2019. Since then his role has evolved to a lot of operations, including managing the Arrows’ Sport Business Analyst Internship Program, a particular source of pride. There have been six or seven graduates of the program. “I’m a big believer in passing on knowledge,” MacDougall says.

As a rugby mind with one foot in operations and logistics and the other in on-field knowledge, Winokur and Webb felt that MacDougall was the full-package guy to make the trip south with the team. They asked him to go four weeks before the Southern Journey, as someone was needed to be a bridge between the front office in Toronto and the team situated in Georgia.

He said yes. He was keen to stay involved, and ticket sales weren’t looking at all likely for the 2021 season.

One of MacDougall’s roles in Atlanta was to hang back with the non-traveling players and perform match-day top ups. Head of High Performance, Sean Harrison, challenged MacDougall to run the Saturday morning sessions. Hearkening back to his Kinesiology degree, MacDougall put the team through their paces, ensuring the guys would reach their high velocity minutes so they could be fit for selection the following week. He’d also see to securing a spot in the hotel for the team to sit down together to watch the match.

A page from MacDougall's hardbound journal which he faithfully kept throughout the 118 days.

“It was a very unique experience being on that side and yet not traveling to most of the away games,” MacDougall says. In fact, so much so that he began journaling his experience and has a hardbound notebook full of the memories and insights gleaned over the four-month adventure.

There are many key moments MacDougall won’t soon forget, starting with heading down in March dragging a massive U-Haul of Arrows gear and necessities.

Maybe three or four weeks in, a player request from new guy Ross Braude had MacDougall tasked with finding a place for kickers to work on their skills on off days. MacDougall sourced out a high school with a good pitch where Braude would run through precisely 96 box kicks. Eventually the rest of the coaches and Arrows players caught on, and it became part of the routine for anyone wanting to work on their kicks. Or a change of scenery.

On the daily, the team needed to be held together.

“Put it this way: when you have 40 type A, aggressive human beings all in one spot, all trying to compete for starting spots in the roster, all just wanting to win, to perform well – but then we lose five games within a try or less, another three games within two tries or less – I feel the close nature of those losses negatively contributed to the environment. It just made things harder than they had to be.” The wins gave the team the extra shot of energy needed to navigate the daily challenges, but the losses tended to do the opposite; energy was sapped, the bubble felt small, there was nowhere to go to clear one’s mind, no home cooked meals and the familiarity of friends to help a player get over himself.

There was too much time to think.

And everyone seemed to be at a different level of acceptance and ability to roll with the punches week in and week out.

On top of that there was a hotel change early on which added further disruption. The first hotel didn’t end up having the amenities the team needed to be as comfortable as would be needed for the long haul. Even once they were moved there were still challenges (mostly due to a lack of appropriate hotel staffing as a result of the pandemic) but the situation was much better overall.

Except for that time about a month in when MacDougall came down with shingles. “I thought at first it was just the Georgia heat,” he shares. It wasn’t. Yet, it didn’t keep him down. He kept going. Because, its it’s what one does.

Hotel room fridges, kettles, and other small appliances offered a makeshift solution for the players to continue to try to eat healthily. Two BBQ’s and a large communal freezer chest were a saviour for the guys to drop off their Costco meat purchases. The amount of times MacDougall went to Home Depot to replace the 6 BBQ tanks they had on hand is head-spinning.

Especially at first when the Sheraton Hotel was nearly empty Sunday through Thursday it was indeed a unique experience. I’m sure a guy walking through the lobby with several propane tanks was amusing.

Still, the lack of the comforts of home were evident.

“Think about wanting to perform at your best but you don’t have that ability to make the snack you want because you don’t have anywhere to store it,” MacDougall says, reflecting on the resilience the experience built in the players. He knows that when things are going well for the team in the future, players will look upon the 118 Days Away and find gratitude. “They can use the experience to dig deep and to say ‘anything we are going to face in the 2022 season is nothing compared to what we faced in 2021’.”

There’s more to conditioning than physical fitness. MacDougall shares that Pete Smith, Arrows’ backs coach, really spent a lot of time personally making sure that mental fitness was attended to as well. Just chatting with players to check in, especially if one was having a particularly down moment, made all the difference. All the coaching staff had the tools needed to ensure the boys were doing okay on any given day. Some players struggled more than others, and everyone took their turn dealing with the blues.

There were a myriad of small details to manage to make life in Atlanta as pleasant as possible.

For example, who would even think that letting the boys use a car would be an issue? Well, the fact that most car rentals stipulate for insurance purposes that a driver has to be 25 or older is very problematic when ⅔ of your squad is below that. Luckily, there is a clause in the MLR agreement that MacDougall was able to call upon to allow the boys periodical freedom from their hotel bubble; Bugging the hotel’s IT department to reset routers on various floors so players interested in online gaming could have their regular escape from it all became the norm. Minor achievements like this were key to the overall contentment of the camp.

I asked how much of an impact suddenly being in crowds had on players considering that when the team departed Canada for their bubble in Atlanta, Ontario roads were bare and mostly everywhere was closed. MacDougall recalled Toronto’s first ‘away game’ against ATL where spectators gathered uncomfortably close to the Arrows bench. There our players were, masked up on the sidelines, with maskless spectators having a drink and a laugh nearby. It was disarming after so many strict guidelines at home. The players weren’t comfortable.

Months later things had relaxed, the players were vaccinated, and the team in general was more used to their surroundings. But at first, it was a strange dynamic.

They couldn’t wait to get the protection that vaccination offered.

Vaccination day was a great adventure and an extremely smooth process. MacDougall credits Georgia Health for their willingness and understanding in working with the team. Three large team vans full of Toronto Arrows players pull up to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta and get their Pfizer shot; 21 days later they repeated the process. That went a long way to making the players feel more at ease.

After vaccination day, players were excited for the opportunity to do things such as getting their hair cut. Prior to everyone being fully vaxxed, Marcello Wainwright acted as team barber, as he had his trimmers with him and a steady hand. Once he was himself injured and forced to head home, the boys became excited for their weekly barber trips – it just felt somehow normal.

MacDougall is quick to say that it was immense that everyone did their part – especially team medical – to be able to proudly state that there wasn’t a single positive case the entire season. The success extends to the entire league, the only professional league with zero cancelled or postponed matches due to Covid-19 in 99 matches played.

Midway into the season, the ripple-down effect of fifty small things (vying for the one laundry machine, vying for the few available cars, living day in and day out on top of one another, travel misadventures to away games), started to take their toll on the Toronto Arrows. As a supporter of the team who is familiar with quite a few of the personalities, I started to feel almost guilty; here were the Arrows, down there playing, and on game day I could sit down with a pint and feel ‘almost’ normal because the team was giving that to me. I started to just want the season to end so the boys could come home.

At precisely that time, MacDougall and former intern Harley Bruce’s brainchild the ‘Club Care Package’ started arriving to make the players feel supported, appreciated, and loved. For MacDougall, it’s a key highlight of his trip. He has hours of video footage of the unwrapping, players reading letters from home, mementos from their club, or some of their favourite things such as Smartfood popcorn and golf balls for Pay Lynott. The players were like a kid at Christmas. The packages started to be anticipated. MacDougall himself grew excited when they arrived.

One day he’ll go through all that footage to see their reactions all over again. The reminder of where they came from, the ethos of rugby, it couldn’t have come at a better time for the players. The willingness of home clubs to participate was immense. And some clubs went so far as to send extras so players could trade amongst themselves. The day the players wore their home club socks in a game was especially heart warming, for players and supporters alike.

The importance of club rugby, of that pathway, was highlighted in a most poignant way. The Arrows has a duty of care to honour those roots, MacDougall says, and they do.

On the bye week, when most players just hung around the State of Georgia, taking in the sights and getting their long-overdue rest, MacDougall travelled to the desert in Utah with Director of High Performance Sean Harrison and players Spencer Jones, Jack McRogers, and Guiseppe du Toit to explore Zion National Park on bike and foot, and to hike The Narrows. It was a great experience and feels very separate from much of MacDougall’s 2021. Not entirely a restful bye week for the three players (to start - they took it easy the back end of their week off, MacDougall says), but certainly medicine for the soul and a recharge on the sanity in the middle of a difficult season.

Realizing the boys required the occasional change of pace, the Arrows managed to hook up with a horse farm via their caterer. MacDougall says it was great to be able to take the team up to the farm three times over the course of the season for team-building exercises and a team meal. The change of scenery was welcome and allowed the team to extend their bubble ever so slightly.

As mentioned off the top, Rugby ATL was fantastic and generous, working with the team on schedules for gym time, practice time, on-field training on the turf. In return, part of the “unwritten partnership agreement” was that MacDougall worked for ATL during six of their home matches. He was their DJ as well, and helped keep the scoreboard ticking along accurately. He was happy to do it – ATL staff was amazing and responsive whenever MacDougall approached them. “Guys like Kevin, Jonathan, ATL Neil, and Peyton, Rugby ATL staff, really helped me out a lot. Not even necessarily from the rugby side. If I needed to find out where to get something, they were always so helpful.”

MacDougall goes on to share that there were two player surgeries down in Atlanta – the Arrows is beyond grateful to ATL and Barbour Medical for all their help getting taken care of. “Without that connection to Rugby ATL all those medical needs wouldn’t have been looked after, from MRIs to scans, to those surgeries, our connection to ATL proved invaluable.”

Finally, after 118 days, the Southern Journey came to an end. The Toronto Arrows returned home in July, with everyone ready to have space from each other. By August, MacDougall found himself missing them all. His was a unique position; he didn’t make selection decisions, he was always the guy behind the camera, and he was part of everyone’s day to day.

People may not be aware that the Toronto Arrows made a point of not having supporters at their games. It was almost a nod to the fans back home that couldn’t be there and an acknowledgement that we were all still very much locked down here at home.

Of the player’s willingness to pitch in, MacDougall offers that he was pleasantly surprised by a few players who would always, without fail, pitch in whenever needed, cleaning up after games, putting equipment away, picking up cones, going above and beyond. He’ll never forget that.

Conversely, there were a few players who by the end of the season just wanted to be done with it, who kind of lost the team ethos. Still in all, most of the team remained unified throughout, straight to the end, regardless of their 5-11 season. The last Atlanta game that the Arrows should have won took the wind right out of their sails. It’s possible that some players just lost whatever optimism remained and checked out.

While the team generally got along being in such close quarters for so long, there were a few minor dust-ups where the coaching staff would have to clear the air to help sort matters out. “When you’re long in that kind of environment, your true character comes out,” MacDougall says, adding that a player’s response to those situations is what would make a difference. “Whether it would be an apology, an acknowledgement, putting forth a solution, the guys who took accountability and offered a solution really stood out.”

Those are the guys you want around you.

Still in all, the entire squad – every single player – gave everything of themselves on the pitch, right to the last match. There was no quit within the team on any given game day.

The greatest gift 118 days in a bubble gave to the team is clarity, which MacDougall hopes will be reflected in the Arrows 2022 season. “We’re used to adversity, we can roll with adversity, and hopefully that will show on the scoreboard. We can bounce through it and be prepared for anything as an organization.”

The 2021 season may not have been an on-field success for the Toronto Arrows. But they earned the respect of everyone connected to the MLR, from pundits and commentators, to other team management and supporters.

And here at home, we learned that we are going to appreciate every moment we get to see the team play in person. Given the small sampling we had of what the game-day experience will look like at the recent Rugby Rally at York University, the Arrows faithful are ready.

And like all the Arrows players, coaches, and staff, we will never forget that 118 days our boys headed south and gave it their best shot.

Karen L. Gasbarino, November, 2021

Rugby Hive Editor

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