September 3, 2023 8:43 PM

Writing our Chapter for Nationals

Benjamin Smith
Written by
Benjamin Smith

We feel like this is a great moment in time to take a look back at the journey our group went on to eventually host the Canadian National Championship. You could say it really started in 2011. A real argument could be made that this was the darkest time for disc golf in Atlantic Canada. At the start of the year we only had one course but it wasn't really gaining traction. A couple of the key builders had young families and it was unclear how the future would unfold. Somehow all the promise that was shown when the first course went in in 2007 was fading and it was unclear if disc golf would live up to the potential we all knew it had but hat's the wonderful thing about life though, you just never know what is going to come next. So many things happened in the next decade that made disc golf what it is here today.

At the start of 2011 the only course in the Maritimes was a lovely little gem of a course in the north shore fishing village of Pugwash, Nova Scotia. It was well loved even if it was used only sparsely. Udisc still wasn't a thing yet and traveling players were not nearly as prevalent as they are today. All the courses were listed on the PDGA directory or and the overall player base was only a fraction of what it is today. Early on in that same year unbeknown to almost everyone, ground was broken on the second course in our region. That course was Hillcrest Farm. Back then Hillcrest was nothing like what we see today. Physically it was in early stages of design and only a small few family friends had ever even heard of the place let alone played it. It would still be a few more years until the local disc golf community found their way there. Little did we know that the seeds from these two courses would help shape the face of disc golf in Canada.

For the next 5 or 6 years things kind of just plodded along here. A group of us formed the Maritime Disc Golf Association, we started running a few more formal events and eventually several key areas of our region built disc golf courses. If you went to one of these events or played one of these courses at that time there was a very good chance that you not only knew every other person there you probably knew their spouses and kids too. Nobody was working in the disc golf industry full time here and everyone who was a part of it did it simply for their love of the sport. Up to this point we were basically following the template that other, more mature disc golf regions had followed. We benefited greatly from the fact that we had several voices at the table who brought with them a slue of experiences from around the disc golf world. We were able to make some intelligent decisions that set us up for future successes. Still our gains were modest and although our growth outpaced most of the rest of Canada that had more to do with that fact that we went from nothing to something. Then in 2015 two of us decided to attend the Canadian National Championship in Vancouver, BC. Only one of us actually made the trip. That was the first time that a Canadian National Championship had people from both coasts attend and it signified a turning point in what the event would come to look like.

Although 2015 wasn't really that long ago it seems like a world away now. A couple of really big things stuck out; first thing was that Canada had some pretty awesome folks running events and generally contributing to the disc golf cause all over the country, and second that players from all over love the idea of a National Championship that is packed full of extras. Another thing was very apparent at that event too; outside of the people playing the actual event there was almost no recognition that a national championship was happening in the city of Vancouver. This was true partially because Vancouver is a huge city with lots going on but it equally true that the disc golf community in Canada did not yet command the respect of the average person or city planner. It seemed like disc golf was almost always an afterthought. That was something we wanted to change.

That years version of Nationals was TD'ed by Craig Sheather. He put on a robust event that included some flex starts and temp courses for the main event. It was perfect. A handful of players made the trip up for the US west coast and the competition level was great. The overall event was a great experience.

During that event we were introduced to Brian Hoeniger the head of PDGA Canada (or more accurately, PDGA International). Brian is a Canadian legend that more people in our country should know by name. He is a member of the disc golf hall of fame, class of 2003 and has a long track record of involvement in the game as both a player and an organizer. During our first encounter Brian laid out a pathway for what any club in Canada ought to be doing to prepare themselves to host a National Championship, or any A Tier event.

So with all that information in mind we set out to run our first 'big' event in 2016, the Eastern Canadian Disc Golf Championships, or better know as the worst acronym in history ECDGC.  Again, looking back now it seems like such a small, potentially meaningless event, but at the time it was huge. Several key things happened here that set up our future success. We started by putting $1000 USD up for grabs for first place in the open division. A handful of key players made the trip from Maine, Ontario, and Quebec which made a huge impact to our local players. We also rented out about a dozen oceanside cottages so most of the traveling players could stay together and we held a huge bbq / banquet / player celebration. There may have only been about 50 people there but if you ask any of them about it they will tell you it was one of those events you look back and smile about every time you think about it (looking back now that may have had a lot to do with the fact that we had provided a few free kegs at the banquet). The biggest and most satisfying thing was the way Hillcrest was received by the traveling players. Many of them instantly said it was the their favourite course. There is almost nothing we love more in the maritimes than outside validation. I don't know why we care but hearing players from Maine and Ontario tell us our courses were awesome was a huge confidence boost. There was one other factor that is a key part of our 'special sauce' and that is the player experience. Sometimes us east coasters take for granted what it is like to experience the ocean in summer, specifically the Northumberland Straight. This tiny stretch of warm water between New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and PEI has amazing sand flats and high and low tides that offer unique experiences every day. Even though some of the traveling players only drove 6 hours or so to get here when they arrived they found themselves emerged in a whole new world. In the years that followed people would start to see this place as a disc golf paradise. We tend to agree.

Later in that same year a few of us made the trip to Toronto Island for the TIML and we were first introduced to Dave Slater. Much like Craig Sheather and Brian Hoeniger, Dave Slater should be a household name in Canadian disc golf. At the time this was the 9th year in a row Dave had run the TIML and it was such an iconic event that everyone who plays it loves it. For those of you who don't know the Toronto Island course is one of the oldest in Canada and is located on another island oasis just overlooking the city of Toronto. At the time Dave had a house boat moored near hole 1 that served at tournament HQ. It was all part of what made the event so special.

The following year in early 2017 it was announced that the TIML would serve as the Canadian National Championship, it would also be Dave's tenth straight year running the event, and as he had already publicly stated, his last as TD. Our maritime group got a little bigger and several of us made the return voyage. The event was once again a treat and you could tell that disc golf in Canada was growing. A couple of us booked an extra day off following TIML to play the island course a few more times and we were lucky enough to be invited to Dave's house boat to chat about the event. At the time we were getting more serious about bidding for Nationals the following year so we thought it would be a great idea to chat with Dave about what he does to make his event magic. Lucky for us Dave is the type of patient, loving person who gives you his full undivided time and attention and openly shares his experience and knowledge with you. I can't tell you how long we sat on his house boat that day but whatever time it took off of the clock was enough to change our lives. He laid out in great detail the things he did to stay on top of player experiences and expectations. He was so kind and generous that it made it easy to really picture ourselves running something great. I'm not sure we knew it at the time but in that little house boat a torch was passed. We were honoured that Dave believed in our vision and when we left there that day we were certain we could do this event justice.

Over the fall and winter of 2017 it was clear we had some work to do. We wanted to submit a bid that was both detailed in its planning and one that captured the spirit of events in the past. At the time we had three key TD's who all specialized in something complementary. We put together a digital caddy book and we started targeting 3 very specific pro players who we felt best represented the spirit we were trying to create. Those players were Simon Lizotte, Paige Pierce, and Nate Sexton.

Even now, looking back 5 years later, it's impossible to say what made these players say yes. Maybe we appealed to their spirit or maybe we just got lucky, but for whatever reason these three pros came and brought their friends. Once registration opened and names from all over Canada (and beyond) started coming in hot. We knew we were on the right track.

Now it should be noted that Maritimers are an odd bunch. We are genuinely friendly and caring and we love to show people our part of the world but that's not what makes us odd. As I mentioned before it is our ever constant need for outside validation. When come-from-aways land here and praise the beauty that is all around us there is a certain subtle (bordering on smug) satisfaction that we feel about this place. It's easy to fall in love with this place, even if it is sometimes hard to completely weave yourself into the fabric of it. Having so many wonderful disc golfers come here and have a genuine experience was one of the greatest gifts to our collective moral. It set into motion so many things that there is hardly space on this page to tell you about them all.

As the week started to roll on it was even more clear that we had stumbled on to something special. An early interview with CBC fortuitously captured Casey White before he was a full on star. We got to experience a wonderful Champs vs Chumps and become lifelong friends with Ian Anderson and his crew. Chandler Fry matched Simons ace from earlier in the week and became a friend to every disc golfer in Canada and the final round at Hillcrest featured 4 MPO players who we will cherish for ever. There was a single moment on hole 18 when the sun was shining and the gallery was out in full force watching Nate Sexton take the high line on his second shot when it dawned on at least 2 of us that we had done something awesome and everyone who had attended really felt it. That feeling was exactly what we set out to create.

As with many high points in life they are often followed by a few valleys. This was certainly true here too. Although the event was an overwhelming success it had gone comically over budget. It was also exhausting and since nobody at the time who volunteered to run the tournament was working in disc golf we all had to go back to work right away. It took a few days (or weeks) for the dust to settle and the entire crew started to feel better. We collectively decided that it would be great to take a year off and then the plan would be to bid on Nationals again in a few years. However life had other plans for us.

A little less than a month after the 2018 Nationals wrapped up we were contacted once again by Brian Hoeniger who explained that the group who had won the rights to host in 2019 had withdrawn their bid and he was hoping we would consider hosting again for a second year straight. All of the TD's were pretty excited by that prospect, it's less clear how their significant others felt about it. Either way it was decided that we would accept the challenge and the planning began again.

For 2019 we had a much better understanding of the things that were successful and the things that could be improved. We set ourselves up to try and bring in a wider group of sponsors and to once again make sure that the players were the centre of the experience. The two courses both made significant improvements to their facility and we entered into the event feeling really good. As the event grew closer our list of pros grew larger until we had one of the best field of professional players anyone could hope to see. Then we started reading the weather reports.

Like many places and people our locals love to talk about the weather, often times while sitting around over Tim Hortons coffee or inhaling our 'yeses'. For the days leading up to the 2019 event there seemed like there was a potential to catch the tail end of a hurricane. Sometimes these reports are true and sometimes these storms just blow over and miss us. We decided to pretend it would be the latter but just in case we started to plan for the former. As the week progressed we started to get more detailed options on how to deal with the impended storm and what constituted an official tournament.

The goal for running events like this is to try and ensure as many people as possible have a positive (and safe) experience. We knew decisions we made would have an impact on a lot of people. Every decision we made was difficult and only happened after hours of deliberation. In the end we did what we could with the situation we were given and the final round was played much to the surprise of many people who were there. Some of the TD's were up at 5am running chainsaws to clear the fairways. By mid morning things were good to go and by mid afternoon the home town crowd was cheering on Thomas Gilbert. In the end the final round might be remembered more for the two of the worst spit-outs you will ever see (both to Paul McBeth), and for Nate Sexton defending his title. It was a wild week that was equally as memorable as our first Nationals for completely different reasons.

Our collective group took a sigh of relief when the event finished. We all felt energized by the kind and positive words of the traveling players who choose to spend their time with us. We decided that as long as their was an appetite from players to come here and share in our space we would keep working on making this event better and better. Then, in the winter of 2020 Covid happened.

The story of disc golf from here forward will always have a chapter devoted to Covid. The global pandemic brought a lot of pain, suffering, and isolation to people all around the world. It brought to the forefront many of the political divides that sometimes separate people. It also shone a huge spotlight on disc golf and how wonderful our game could be. Not long after the first lockdown subsided courses and clubs all around the world started to notice something was happening. Disc golf was booming in a way that not even the most optimistic planners thought would happen this fast.

So now we are two years removed since we have seen many of our disc golf friends. We are expecting big things for the 2022 version of Nationals and this will be the final chapter that our group writes for this iconic Canadian event. We are excited to see this tournament take place in another part of Canada in 2023 so our country can once again welcome players into a part of the world they may not have seen before. Our group here has something very exciting to announce in the coming weeks that will replace Nationals here in 2023 but that will be a story for another time. For now get your registration fingers ready because this years event is poised to be our best one yet and a celebration of everything that makes disc golf in Canada wonderful.

Until our tee time together, throw a little and have a lot of fun.