A basketball championship for the ages

Two years ago, the provincial girls’ high school basketball championship was the last major varsity sporting event to play to its conclusion before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and shut competition down for more than an entire school year.

The Terry Fox Ravens, from Port Coquitlam reached the final. But the team was young and inexperienced, comprised mostly of Grade 10s riding the emotions of playing for a teammate who’d been felled by cancer. They were blown out by an older, bigger, tougher opponent.

It was a tough game to shoot. My heart ached for the players as I focused my lens on the bench for some sort of photo that would show the emotion of their struggle.

Fast forward two years — and one lost season; those sophomores are now seniors and they have the strength and athleticism to carry the memory of their teammate onto the basketball court with conviction. They play their way to the number three ranking in the province, but their ascent is largely lost on me.

Ongoing COVID restrictions cancelled tournament play that is the bread and butter of getting out to shoot some high school hoops during my regular work schedule this winter, as well as a ban on spectators at indoor events at schools made it difficult to follow the season.

So my first encounter with the team since their miserable championship loss was the semifinal of this year’s provincial tournament. The players, so overmatched and humbled two years ago, now played with resolve and tenacity that pulsed off the court. It’s like they were on a mission.

That the only thing standing between the fulfillment of their task would be the top-ranked team in the province all season that happens to be from the other side of town, the Riverside Rapids, added a whole other layer of drama and intrigue to what was to unfold at centre court at the Langley Events Centre.

The showdown didn’t disappoint.

The championship game may have been one of the most intense high school basketball games I’ve ever covered.

While the lead on the scoreboard changed only twice, the ebbs and flows of momentum were epic. The fire in the belly of both teams to prevail burned hot: Terry Fox playing for a beloved teammate seared into their hearts; Riverside playing for a longtime coach who’d been to the final before but never won.

The atmosphere in the gym was electric; it’s rare for two teams from the same city to meet for the provincial championship.

In the end, Fox held on, upsetting the Rapids by two points. It’s the school’s first senior girls provincial basketball championship.

This hatter’s not mad at all

I had the pleasure of hanging out with 72-year-old Robert Gault for about an hour as he worked on one of the custom fedora hats he crafts in the garage of his Port Coquitlam townhouse.

He bought his first hat when he was 13, but it wasn’t until he was looking for something to keep himself busy during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic he started making his own, learning as he went along.

Since gifting one to a friend, Gault’s gained a growing reputation amongst fans of fedoras, who now seek him out over the internet or through word of mouth.

Each fedora takes about 20 hours to complete and can cost hundreds of dollars.

And be sure not to call Gault a millener. They make women’s hats. Men’s hats are crafted by hatters.

‘I want to the change the narrative’

Alana Cook weighs 144 pounds. But when the Port Moody resident steps into the combat octagon, she carries the weight of a nation.

Cook recently won her debut as a professional mixed martial arts fighter. She’s also Métis — on her mother’s side — and works at organizing sports opportunities for Indigenous youth as the Fraser Regional coordinator at I-SPARC, an initiative of three founding First Nations organizations to promote sport and physical activity in their communities.

So when Cook defeated Max Turcotte-Novosedlik by technical knockout 4:23 into the first round of their bout in Calgary Jan. 15, the win was more than just a notch in her fight record.

It was also affirmation of her heritage, her belief in her role as a “female warrior,” and the example she can set for young Indigenous people.

“It’s important to say this is where I come from,” Cook said. “I don’t want to be taken as a ‘token Indian.’”

Growing up in Maple Ridge, Cook played team sports like soccer and volleyball, but when she aged out of the youth leagues, she decided to explore a long-held fascination with martial arts.

Cook said she loved reading comic books and training and sparring in a gym tapped into her inner female superhero.

“I mostly trained for fun,” she said.

But when a job opportunity took Cook to Thailand for a year where Muay Thai kickboxing events are a weekly occurrence in neighbourhoods across the country, she decided for the first time to test herself against an opponent. The ring was set up in a parking lot in Ko Pha Ngan – an island in the southeastern part of the country that’s known for its monthly celebrations of the full moon.

“It was super chaotic,” said Cook, recalling the loud music and boisterous crowd of locals, most of them smoking cigarettes.

The butterflies and adrenaline rush were like nothing she’d ever experienced, Cook said.

She was hooked.

Cook won her first regulation amateur MMA match in 2018 at an All Martial Arts championship card in Vancouver but she then had to take some time off to recover from an injury. The COVID-19 pandemic extended her hiatus.

Cook’s fight in Calgary was part of an all-female card at the Grey Eagle Events Centre promoted by the Pallas Athena Women’s Fighting Championship. She said it was empowering to compete and commune with other women.

“Everyone had hands like me, with short nails and bruised knuckles. I felt among my people.”

Cook, who’s based out of Ascension Martial Arts in Port Coquitlam and Universal MMA in North Vancouver, said much of her preparation for the fight was done out in nature — running on the streets and trails near her Heritage Mountain home, and icy swims in Buntzen Lake.

It’s a regimen she’s intimately familiar with, having earned her Master’s degree in Indigenous land-based education at the University of Saskatchewan after presenting her thesis on using natural environs to promote health and fitness amongst First Nations.

Cook said her success is already having in impact among the young people she works with.

After her win in Calgary, her email Inbox received a steady stream of congratulatory messages from participants in the I-SPARC programs she organizes. She hopes the glow stays with them, teaches them to fight for their dreams as well.

“It means a lot to me to give them someone to look up to,” Cook said.

“I want to change the narrative.”

These Hollywood and basketball stars turn to Port Moody man for their retro Jordans

When Hollywood comedian Kevin Hart or Phoenix Suns basketball player Devin Booker want to secure a special pair of Air Jordan sneakers, it’s a Port Moody man who hooks them up.

Tye Engmann has been buying and selling collectible kicks for the past five or six years. In fact, he’s become so good at it, he bailed out of his second year at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business for the school of hard walks.

Engmann, 20, specializes in vintage Nike Air Jordans. The iconic basketball shoes were first produced for NBA superstar Michael Jordan in 1984 then released to the public in April, 1985. They were an immediate sensation.

Fans who wanted to feel a bit of their hero’s magic wrapped around their toes lined up for hours to get the latest shipments. Muggings, assaults and even a murder to get the shoes became the fodder of media crime blotters.

Some schools banned them outright to curtail the potential for violence.

New Air Jordans have been released yearly since, along with several special editions commemorating milestones in Jordan’s career, historic occasions like the Running of the Bulls in Spain, the player’s relationship with filmmaker Spike Lee who once served as a pitchman for the brand as well as collaborations with various designers.

But Engmann said it’s the original old-school Jordans that elevate his heart rate and boost his bank account.

He said they’re the most collectible not only because so many have disappeared into waste bins over the years, but they were also the best quality.

Engmann said a pair of Jordan 1 Chicago sneakers from 1985 can be worth up to $25,000 if they’re in brand new condition. Other variations like a limited run of that shoe with a black sole when the manufacturer ran out of red rubber, or an iteration with a special strap that was added when Michael Jordan was recovering from an ankle injury are even more rare.

Engmann discovered his passion for sneakers when he was young. He said he coveted a pair of white and black Adidas NMD low-tops that featured some Japanese writing on the sides.

“I just wore them because I liked them,” Engmann said of the shoes that he eventually bought off a reseller because all the usual retailers were sold out. “They were actually really comfortable.”

The unique look of the footwear sparked his interest in sneaker design, the little touches like the colour of the midsole that distinguished one model from another. He started playing with dyes to put his own flair on the shoes, learning about the materials to use and techniques to follow from watching videos on YouTube.

Friends noticed, asked him if he could dye their sneakers too.

Sensing a business opportunity that could earn him the money to further his own sneaker collection without always going to his parents for a handout, Engmann started charging for his dye jobs and scouring online for unique finds. He targeted Jordans because Michael Jordan is his favourite player. He mined websites and blogs to learn all he could about the shoes.

“You have to understand the history of the shoes to appreciate them,” he said.

When Engmann scored his first pair of vintage Jordans, he posted a photo on his Instagram account. His In box filled with notifications, some with offers to buy them for much more than he paid.

Engmann said he held onto those sneakers for two or three years. In the interim, he connected with other collectors to buy and sell other pairs. It was, he said, a pretty “niche” market.

Then, in 2020, Netflix debuted The Last Dance, its 10-part documentary series about Michael Jordan’s career.

The show introduced the superstar to a whole new generation who’d never seen him play and reminded those who had of the impact he made on basketball. It also reignited interest in the shoes that bear Jordan’s name.

“There was a real surge in people becoming interested in vintage shoes,” said Engmann, who decided to dive into the growing marketplace with both feet.

Most of Engmann’s days are spent on the computer, scouring blogs and various online marketplaces around the world like Grailed for footwear treasures that may have been squirrelled away in closets or attics for years. Japan was a hotbed of sneaker culture for a time, but has since cooled.

Engmann has set up a small studio to take photos of sneakers he’s putting up for sale on his website or posting to his social media accounts and he’s started dabbling in making YouTube videos to grow his audience even more.

He’s also preparing to go to Sneaker Con events like one that’s scheduled to take place in Vancouver in March after several such shows were cancelled by COVID-19 public health restrictions.

Engmann’s growing expertise and ability to secure rare finds has caught the attention of celebrity collectors like Hart, Booker and another pro basketballer, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of the Oklahoma Thunder.

“They’re really cool, they’re respectful,” said Engmann of his high-profile clients.

But finding a pair of vintage Jordans that will fit a pro basketball player’s giant size 14 — or more — feet can be particularly challenging.

“The hunt is so much fun,” Engmann said.

MARIO BARTEL/THE TRI-CITY NEWS Port Moody’s Tye Engmann counts celebrity collectors like Hollywood comedian Kevin Hart and pro basketball players among his clients for vintage Air Jordan sneakers that he collects and resells.

Lessons in resilience

If 2020 was the year of the pandemic, 2021 was the year we learned to live with the pandemic.

As COVID-19 infections waxed and waned through the seasons, the rollout of vaccines and emergence of variants, we persevered. Public health restrictions came, then eased, then started to return again. With them, so did our hopes for an imminent return to normal life.

Masks became the go-to accessory to pack whenever you left the house. They were joined by the vaccine passport. Simple acts like paying for groceries or entering a movie theatre became a juggling act of displaying cards, flashing cellphones and packing your own bags. And don’t you dare cough while doing any of those.

If nothing else, 2021 proved our resilience.

Despite the ongoing anxiety and uncertainty of our worlds turned upside down, people forged ahead. They chased their dreams. They started businesses. They celebrated achievements, albeit with a bit more restraint. Music and theatre returned. So did sports. And social gatherings. Maybe their absence made us embrace the richness they bring to our lives a little tighter.

The lessons we’ve learned through the past 21 months will be with us for generations. Hopefully they’ll make us stronger, more ready to adapt when the next big crisis comes along.

Here’s some of my favourite photos from the past year. Be sure to click on the “i” when you’re in the gallery to learn a bit more about the photo, and how it was shot.

Game on. Again

In the grand scheme of things, sports may not save lives, cure disease or reduce climate change. But its absence for many months then gradual return highlighted its importance to our mental health.

Even when denied the opportunity for competition, athletes and weekend warriors found ways to stay active, overcome challenges and strive for goals.

And when the games returned they were more than ready to play with renewed enthusiasm and dedication.

The fabric of our lives and community are richer when the fields, pitches, diamonds, pools and gyms are alive with the sounds and sights of sports. Because in the end, it’s not about winners and losers, it’s about just being able to play. Again.

Here’s some of my favourite sports photos from 2021, when the games came back. It’s great to be back on the sideline. (Be sure to click on the “i” icon when you go into the photo gallery to learn a little about how the photo was made)

Putting the coverage into local coverage

This is what local coverage is about.

Saturday, we had two local teams playing in the two varsity semifinal games at BC Place Stadium to determine the opponents for next week’s Subway Bowl provincial high school football championships.

This is typically a pretty big deal.

The kids get to play in the grand environs of a big-time stadium. A couple or few thousands fans fill a section of the expansive grandstand. The local TV stations usually send a crew or cameraman to put together a highlight package (in fact, in days of yore I think they even showed the final game live on one of the stations), the daily papers assign at least a reporter and photographer. Also on the sidelines would be the reporters and photographers from the various community papers if one of their local teams was participating.

It’s always been a lot of fun. We’d get to shoot some dedicated young athletes in relatively decent light, catch up with our colleagues and compete for the best coverage.

But local news resources are now so depleted, the sideline media contingent last night consisted pretty much of myself, a former newspaper journalist who now blogs about high school sports and a reporter from one of the dailies who spent a good chunk of time trying to figure out how he could get a hot dog (can’t say I blame him; don’t even get me started on the demise of the food buffets that used to be provided at big time sporting events to ease the hunger pangs of journalists working at their event).

As we had two teams from our coverage area playing for the possibility of an all-Tri-City final for the first time, I pitched my editor this was an opportunity for us to go big.

With my colleague @KyleBalzer up in the press box handling the writing and live posts to social media, I was able to concentrate on shooting.

At halftime of each game, I headed up to download a couple of photos for the quick hit he’d post to our website and social media channels immediately after each game. Following the final whistle, I edited a more complete take while he gathered quotes and produced a more fulsome account.

Within an hour of the end of each game, visitors to tricitynews.com were able to read a complete game story with accompanying photo gallery and even a few video clips Kyle shot with his phone from the press box.

The daily has yet to post its story (maybe the photos they were going to get from one of the organizers weren’t any good).

The morning news show on TV didn’t even mention the scores.

The blogger is probably sleeping in.

The hits we get on our website may not come close to the traffic generated by a story about a local crime wave or a reader’s screed about a parking ticket, but I’d like to think each one we get will go away from our site appreciative of our commitment to cover the community and then return to us again when they want to find out what’s going on in their neighbourhood or across town.

And for Kyle and I, the evening was a chance for each of us to do what we do best so we could provide our readers the best coverage — even if we were really hungry…

Sports is more than just fun and games

It’s been awhile.

As the end of 2021 draws nigh, we continue to struggle for normalcy.

The COVID-19 pandemic is still all around us, changing the way we work and how we interact. Our newsroom continues to work mostly from our homes, meeting occasionally over Zoom, daily on Slack. Who’d ever even heard of those apps before all of this started?

But compared to last year at this time, we’ve come a long way.

Not every story we tell now has a pandemic context. Events are starting to happen again. Sports is happening again.

That’s been huge.

While most of the sports I’ve covered over the past several years — first at the papers in Burnaby and New Westminster, then the past four years in the Tri-Cities — has been off the side of my desk, it’s still my passion for shooting and writing. So much so, that even when the pandemic shut down pretty much all sports at every level, the only times I wasn’t able to get some sort of sports coverage into the paper was when ads took my space.

I’ve always been a proponent of a feature-based approach to sports coverage. Partly as a survival strategy because it allows me to stockpile stories to be parsed out when other duties are more demanding. Partly because blow-by-blow game reports filed in a weekly paper seem so futile in this age of social media and live streaming.

Mostly, I love covering sports because it’s such fertile ground for interesting and compelling features. They’re stories of triumph and adversity, hopes and dreams. They offer drama, pathos and even humour.

Sports is a microcosm of life, played out on the ice, the pitch, the diamond, the hardwood.
In the past year, I told stories about:

a pro hockey player getting back on the ice after overcoming cancer three times;
a young boy knocked off his BMX bike by a similar diagnosis;
student-athletes coping with the uncertainties of the pandemic on both their academic and athletic aspirations;
a hockey team’s commitment to providing its players supports for their mental and emotional well-being;
a young lacrosse player who can’t play because he can’t find a helmet that fits his head;
a minor pro baseball player toiling for a team named after a hot dog;
a basketball player thriving on the court despite being deaf

Yet, sports continues to struggle for respect from editors.

After photographers, sports reporters have paid a heavy price for our industry’s woes. I know several who were punted to the bench because their beat was deemed more expendable than say covering city council or school board, their work not as important, well read or generating as many hits.

But sports coverage is a huge community builder, a point of entry for readers — especially younger ones — who might not otherwise get engaged by the latest drama unfolding at school board meetings. And in the newspaper industry’s rush to stanch the bleeding, those roles have largely been neglected, further distancing us from our lifeblood.

A feature story about a young athlete heading to university to play a sport they only took up in Grade 12 won’t affect your taxes or property values, or alert you to alter your commute to work, but it will give you a glimpse into your community and the diversity of the people who populate it. And it might even make you smile, feel a bit better about where you live, more connected to your community.

To be successful — heck, even relevant is an achievement these days — newspapers must be all those things. We must inform, but we also need to entertain, evoke emotion, broaden your understanding of the world around you, even if that world is just down your street or across town.

An anniversary

It was 30 years ago today I pointed my little red Toyota Tercel west.

My road and mountain bikes were clamped in the Thule rack on the roof, my camera gear and clothes squirreled in the hatchback.

My first newspaper job in Oshawa, Ont., had been claimed by the 1990 recession. And while a few of us had pooled resources to scrounge up some freelance contracts, I wasn’t done with newspapers and I was hoping newspapers weren’t done with me.

So, with only a vague assurance from @craighodge that there was work to be had in the suburbs of Vancouver, I decided to head west instead of east where I had already secured a job offer at a small daily in Nova Scotia.

My first day on the road, I got as far as Appleton, Wis., even as the car radio crackled with tornado warnings through Illinois.

The second night, I encamped in Butte, Mont., where I watched Nolan Ryan no-hit the Toronto Blue Jays on the motel TV.

I made it to Vancouver on the third day, navigated my way to Port Coqutilam, and a few days later started pulling photo shifts @tricitynews.

It was heady time in the Lower Mainland newspaper business.

Every market had competing papers.

We were a photo department of six shooters, plus freelancers. The photographers who huddled around the light table at the end of every 10-hour shift — @gregkinch, @arlenredekop, @simoneponne, @dougshanks, @marcusoleniuk, @evanseal, @briangiebelhaus, @brianlangdeau, @steveray — all pushed each other to bring out our best.

Mario Bartel storyteller photographer journalist communicator
Blowing off steam between assignments in the studio.

We covered events like the BC Summer and Winter Games, Canada Games, Commonwealth Games, Molson Indy, Grey Cups.

Our bylines may not have been in a daily, but by god we weren’t going to let that stop us from working like we were a daily. Heck, one year we even managed to convince our employer to charter us a plane so we could attend a news photogs’ conference in Spokane, Wash.

The reporters I got to work with — @johnwawrow, @richdalmonte, @mikemcquillan, @katetrotter, @guidomarziali — were all supremely talented and dedicated. We all thought nothing of toiling late into the night if it meant getting the story.

Mario Bartel storyteller photographer journalist communicator
Remember when journalists smoked in the newsroom, kept a mickey of Scotch squirreled in a desk drawer? This guy, John Wawrow, is one of the best old-school reporters I’ve worked with. He’s still hanging on, covering sports for AP in Buffalo.

Of course, the halcyon days didn’t last.

By the mid-1990s we were starting to hear things about reading news stories on WWW services like AOL, exchanging gossip about favourite TV shows on Internet Newsgroups.

Internal politics split up our photo department. Economics started to deplete our ranks. The urgency to roll to late-night scanner calls diminished. The chatter when we gathered at the police tape or the pub grew increasingly dour.

Life started to take on more importance. It was time to find balance.

For 17 years (!) @katiebartel has been my port in the storm of a professional life that became increasingly tumultuous, crashing through changing roles, ownership changes and amalgamations, several publishers, numerous editors, a closure, then ultimately a rebirth.

For eight years, @thelittlering1 has been my light, showing me all that is incredible about life through his eager, inquisitive eyes and wry smile.

Mario Bartel storyteller photographer blogger Vancouver snow

Every day, I marvel a little that I ended up here.