JFK TOURNAMENT SHOWS THE GAME'S WORLDWIDE APPEAL

By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

It is morning on what is called The National Mall, the wide-open parkland between the U.S. Capitol building and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

On this Saturday, music pumps from what sounds like a religious revival at the Lincoln Memorial. Aircraft take off from Reagan National Airport. Tourists with good shoes gawk at the shape of the Washington Monument, just as the first bits of scaffolding are attached to its surface to prepare for its scheduled maintenance.

More than 200 years before anyone thought of turning this area into a two-mile long pedestrian walkway connecting Americans to their heritage through its presidential and war monuments as well as the vast muesum complex known as The Smithsonian Institution, this place was, oddly enough, a swamp.

Part of that watery heritage is retained in a quarter-mile long body of water called The Reflecting Pool, a photographic magnet for those trying to duplicate those postcards you can find in every souvenir store with 30 miles of Washington.

Next to the pool, they have been playing the game of field hockey for 34 autumns in the John F. Kennedy Memorial Tournament. Held on Columbus Day weekend, numerous heroes, known but to a very few, have played here. Skills, known but to the very best, have been exhibited.

The tournament has been a chance for teams from all over the world to come and play on the five grass fields in this narrow meadow. For domestically-based club teams, it is a last chance to refine their play before the USFHA National Hockey Festival, which follows six weeks after this tournament.

For foreign teams, it is a chance to play in an international tournament against different styles from what they are used to. It is also a chance to renew old rivalries -- and old friendships.

One such friendship to be renewed in 1998 was the relationship between the tournament and the African continent. Teams from Union Bank in Lagos, Nigeria had been a perennial contender in the tournament, winning several championships in the 1980s.

"Between 1981 and 1989, we came every year," said Sam Owopetu, the tournament's African liaison. "We were runners-up in 1981, 1982, and 1984, won the competition in 1985, were runners-up in 1986, and we won in 1987, and were runners-up in 1988 and 1989."

However, the country underwent a severe economic crisis, dropping the value of the Nigerian currency and making it suddenly much more expensive to send teams to the JFK Tournament. The 1998 tournament marked the return of Nigerian teams Stallions and Constant H.

"The majority of players for these club are offshoots of the Union Bank hockey team," said Owopetu as he watched his two clubs struggling against the other teams in their pools. "While they are not doing well in this tournament, maybe they will pick up later."

The presence of a Nigerian team in the United States was not lost on the onlookers. A group of scholastic players from Woodbridge, Va. became instant fans of the Constant H. men's team. They cheered when Constant H. got a good scoring chance, and recognized many of the moves taught during practice, only done at a higher speed.

There was a Constant H. women's team in the tournament, which in and of itself is a challenge. In many parts of Africa, the concept of women playing a sport is something akin to sacrilege.

"In the Muslim north," Owopetu says, "they don't allow the ladies to expose parts of their bodies. But in Nigeria, things are changing, and women are playing in universities, where the culture is more liberal."

Among the kaleidoscopic array of uniforms which peppered the five fields hard by The Reflecting Pool was an American-based club which has become a symbol of diversity. The Rye (N.Y.) Field Hockey Club has players from all over the world on its high-quality roster.

Alex Rooks, the president of the club, is a native of France, through England.

"Our of a roster of 30 players, we have 12 nationalities," Rooks says as he ticks off a mental checklist while looking at a tournament program. Marq Mellor, United States; Eve Levasque, Canada; Acki Heldens, Germany; Pepe Noche, Cuba; Ahmed El-Maghrby, Egypt; Darrin Nelson, New Zealand; Barry Payne, Kenya; Randy Smarma, India; and Andrew Delaney, England are part of the club.

"We are a number of guys who are expatriates, who came over here for business or whatever," Rooks says. "And what we wanted to do was maintain our social activity."

Expatriates from all over the world pepper the teams. There are even non-team members participating in the tournament in a kind of creative free agency. Some drive several hours to Washington and hook up with a team a couple of hours before the tournament begins, hoping to fill out a roster needing a substitute or needing a player just to make a starting eleven.

One team which was short on players, though not on pride, was the Jyoti women's club from India. Jyoti was a club which had won the consolation half of last year's tournament, but it became clear early on that it would not contend for honors. The team started its tournament one player short, and it took a couple of games for the team to get organized.

By the time Jyoti managed to find another player to make eleven players for its side, it was far too late to make an impact on the tournament.

Other teams, however, had no trouble finding players from their own clubs.

"I'm entertained by the fact that there are so many characters from all over the world playing," Rooks said. "And we have the British Empire to thank for that."

As Rooks was making his remarks, players from Canada and Bermuda, Scotland and the United States were testing their wits against each other.

But as Kingdon Gould, the tournament chairman, mentioned in his opening remarks, the tournament was much more than the games on the field. It was about the friendships made and renewed. It was about a celebration of the game, as well as just plain celebrating.

Field hockey players worldwide are as well-known as rugby players when it comes to knowing how to throw a party. The mid-tournament dinner-dance saw plenty of mingling between athletes, whether Moldovan or Nigerian. The Scottish team, known as the Fish Heads, came to the dinner wearing tuxedo shirts, bow ties, and heavy woolen kilts. And they were an instant hit with the Bermudan and American women's teams.

"There is room for field hockey on the world scene," Rooks says. "It is a lot more of a social event, and it leads to gatherings and honest get-togethers."

But the following morning came the serious hockey, with teams playing down to championship games on the men's and women's sides. While rumors of late-night partying and early-morning hangovers spread along the sidelines, teams were focusing on getting their names on the huge championship trophies sitting on the aluminum dais in the midst of Field 3.

In the women's final, Tirotex of Moldova took on Philadelphia. Tirotex had won multiple championships in the 1990s, and it was not hard to see why. The green-and-blue clad team was much more efficient than it was flashy, making all of the right plays to open players rather than trying to beat the opposition in one-on-one coverage. Tirotex took an early lead and did not let Philadelphia get back into the game, winning the final 6-0.

In the men's championship, a pair of Toronto-based teams played for the trophy. The GOA Reds, winners in 1997, played a style of hockey similar to that of the Toronto Lions. Each team had a number of players with amazing speed and skill. Toronto took an early lead, only to see the Reds tie the game late in regulation.

With the game tied, the teams played 15 minutes of extra time without scoring, meaning that penalty strokes would determine the victor. GOA was able to not only score at will in the round of flicks from seven yards, but the Reds' goalkeeper was able to prevent all but one from entering the cage.

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