Source: Toronto Arrows
No matter where you are in the world, you have felt the colossal impact of COVID-19. The disease does not discriminate and you would be hard pressed to find someone that has not been impacted by it. The sports world is no exception. After being initially postponed for 30-days, Major League Rugby became the first professional sports league in North America to cancel the remainder of the season on March 19th, 2020.
For many players on the Toronto Arrows, the shutdown and social distancing rules has led to them spending plenty of quality time with their teammates over the past two months. “I’ve pretty much been with Ben almost everyday since the beginning of March'' said Arrows scrumhalf Jamie Mackenzie. The Ben that Mackenzie referred to is his roommate and Arrows centre Ben LeSage. Mackenzie and LeSage are joined by a third roommate who also doubles as their captain; Dan Moor. In true 2020 fashion, the three of them were kind enough to sit down on a Zoom call and offer insight into the professional athlete’s perspective of the shutdown.
The Toronto Arrows got off to a roaring start in the 2020 Major League Rugby season. After round 5, the Arrows found themselves on top of the MLR’s Eastern Conference with a 4-1-0 record. In round 5, the Arrows played the Colorado Raptors in what would turn out to be their final match of 2020 (and the Raptors final match in MLR).
The Arrows had a bye week in round 6, so Mackenzie, LeSage, and flyhalf Will Kelly decided to head down to Florida and enjoy a bye-week vacation. They found out that the MLR season was postponed for 30 days while in Florida.
“That one didn’t come as much of a surprise,” LeSage recalled his initial reaction to the news. “I think it was one or two nights prior when the NBA was suspended. Some of the biggest leagues had done so. I think we were all just waiting for that to occur for us. To me, it seemed that it was inevitable”.
At this point, the group made a decision to head home early. The initial plan was to fly, but Mackenzie’s parents had a car in Florida that they needed to get home. Mackenzie decided to drive and LeSage offered to join on the road trip so Mackenzie wouldn’t get bored.
They got more news on the road trip back. “During the Sunday, we were almost back in Canada. That’s when Trudeau announced they were closing the boarder to the US”, said LeSage. The road trip was sped up, as were the bye-week vacations of other Arrows. “Part of it was getting back as quickly as we could, so we could do the two-week quarantine,” added Mackenzie.
At this point, they were under the impression that the team would be training in a few weeks to be ready when the 30-day postponement was up. Moor laughed at many of the images he saw on CNN where he said it looked like “it was business as usual” down in Florida. Moor continued “Meanwhile, I’m up in Toronto sending these guys texts saying we should be coming up with a plan for what happens with COVID”. Moor actually ended up temporarily moving back home with his parents in order to allow Mackenzie and LeSage to quarantine together and help out his parents.
The MLR’s announcement of the season being cancelled came as more of a shock. “Compared to the first situation, none of the major sports leagues had cancelled their seasons at that point. So that was what seemed unprecedented at that time. Now it seems to have been good foresight and been the right decision” explained LeSage. Moor would add “I just had never pictured that happening before. I haven’t seen it in my lifetime. We haven’t seen it for 100 plus years”.
Just over 100 years ago, the 1919 Stanley Cup Final had to be cancelled due to the Spanish Flu. Montreal Canadiens defenceman Joe Hall died of pneumonia as a result of the Spanish Flu. Engraved on the Stanley Cup is 1919 Montreal Canadiens, Seattle Metropolitans, Series Not Completed. That was the last time that a major sporting championship had be cancelled due to a pandemic.
The cancellation of the season does have a big impact on the players themselves. Moor penned an article for Movember discussing some of the mental health impacts of COVID-19. In particular, Moor discussed the shutdown of nearly every major sports league. In that article, Moor wrote that he and his teammates “have lost the central purpose driving us out of bed everyday”. During our interview he elaborated on that thought. “So much more than the average occupation; being an athlete is central to who we actually are and who we identify as,” said Moor. “In our case, I think we have done a pretty good job to continue working out and continue to look after our bodies”.
Moor would add that it is difficult to replicate the team environment. Moor, Mackenzie, and LeSage have also been investing plenty of time into developing new skills such as learning Spanish and the piano to occupy their time.
If you have ever spent time talking to an Arrow, you will quickly realize how important their team culture is. Despite the physical separation the team has remained close. LeSage points out that as Captain, Moor is the “Chief” of organizing the Arrows’ cultural nights. Every Wednesday night Moor organizes a Zoom call for the squad to have a beer and catch up with each other. The call is open to all members of the Arrows organization. Over time, the Wednesday night Zoom calls have turned into trivia challenges.
Moor organizes the trivia challenges and the team tries to beat the benchmark established by Mackenzie. “Jamie is the guinea pig that Dan runs the quiz by” explained LeSage. By LeSage’s account, the benchmark that Mackenzie has set has proven difficult to beat. However, Mackenzie insists that there is an asterisk on his teammates' scores. “They share their answers and it drives me mad! All the guys, while they are doing the quiz, they yell out answers, so it improves everyone’s scores,” Mackenzie insisted. LeSage and Moor would back up Mackenzie’s defense stating that he is the only one doing the quiz solo. Despite that, only Chris Silverthorn (a big asterisk according to Mackenzie) and Doc Gillis have declared victory thus far.
Beyond beers and trivia, the team has also been bonding over Call of Duty. “There is a good core group of the team that plays Call of Duty. That has become as much as a social thing [as the Zoom calls]. You can go on and play with three or four guys at a time, you catch up, you banter and that’s been as good a way to keep in touch as any”, explains LeSage. He added that hooker Andrew Quattrin has been issuing challenges to other teams in MLR. Mackenzie and LeSage are incredibly confident in the Arrows ability to defeat any MLR opponent in Call of Duty.
Moor has been impressed by what he has seen from his teammates and suggests that Call of Duty will have its benefits on the rugby pitch. “I think Pete Smith, the backs coach, is actually excited about how Benny, Will Kelly, and JMac have all been working out there. Communication has improved, they’re going to be lethal on the pitch together” said Moor. Mackenzie exclaimed “it will be seamless out there!”.
Call of Duty has not been the only game occupying their time lately. Mackenzie and LeSage both represented the Arrows in the MLR: Virtual tournament. Mackenzie and LeSage were tapped to represent the Arrows due to them living together. The tandem got off to a hot start to the MLR: Virtual campaign. Mackenzie had a legendary 2nd half performance as he came back from a massive halftime deficit he inherited from LeSage to win the first game vs the New England Free Jacks. “That’s what I will go down in the history books for. I think when I look back on my rugby career that’s what I will remember most,” said Mackenzie of the historic moment.
Unfortunately, it all went downhill from there. Despite missing the virtual playoffs Mackenzie and LeSage both agreed that it was a great experience and they would be interested in seeing MLR do something like it in the future. “I think it’s pretty cool. Just utilizing that platform; there is so many people out there that are into e-games. If you can build an audience that ends up interested or invested in rugby in any kind of form, that would be huge. I would definitely try it again,” said Mackenzie.
Despite the great experience, the matches of Rugby20 have been few and far between since the end of MLR: Virtual. Mackenzie said that he “played one game against Kolby [Francis]”, while LeSage claimed that “I haven’t touched it at all”. After all, he has been dedicating more of his time to mastering Call of Duty.
Moor has made two appearances on The Classics, a show that the Arrows have been streaming on Facebook and YouTube looking back on their classic matches. According to Moor, his roommates don’t quite understand why he has been chosen to make two appearances on the show. However, his roommates have gotten plenty of their own opportunities. “You see how I wasn’t selected for the model shoot,” joked Moor referring to a photoshoot LeSage and Mackenzie did for The Rugby Shop.
Moor did describe many of the benefits of The Classics “If you look across professional sports, it’s a model being rolled out”, said Moor of all the teams, leagues and broadcasters that have been using classic matches for content. He added “There is a market for sports content and sports fans are craving it right now. It’s part of the reason The Last Dance on Netflix is absolutely killing it.” A big part of The Classics has been allowing the fans to engage with the players and directly ask them questions. “Any time that we get to interact with our fans and say thank you for their support, we all relish that opportunity”, said Moor who is also looking forward to having those interactions in person again.
When not engaging in Arrows’ marketing activities, the three roommates have had to find new ways to occupy their time, like so many of us. The group has been investing time into learning new skills. Moor has been learning the Spanish language. It’s an endeavour that he started during a trip to Costa Rica back in November. “It’s something I tried to learn a little bit during the season with Duolingo and [my teammates] were calling me the Duolingo Gringo,” said Moor of his newly acquired nickname. With the added time Moor is now taking lessons with a Spanish tutor and facetiming his South American teammates for advice and practice.
LeSage has rekindled his love for reading and has began writing reviews of the books he has read since the MLR season shutdown. “I felt like I wanted to start practicing my writing skills and try summarizing books. Even for myself I find if you start ripping through one book after another they start jumbling together. You lose track of what your takeaways or learnings were”, said LeSage of why he began to review books. He also mentioned the rewarding experience of recommending a book and having that person say they really enjoyed it.
Two books that have stood out to LeSage since the beginning of the MLR season are When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi and American Kingpin by Nick Bilton. You can read all of LeSage’s reviews and recommendations on the Instagram page @bens_bookshelf.
Mackenzie has taken up the piano as well as joining Moor on his Spanish endeavours. Mackenzie has also taken the opportunity to learn skills to further his non-rugby career. His teacher is none-other than Dan Moor. “It’s awesome! Dan has been kind enough to do some personal stuff for me and Ben in terms of furthering our careers and setting us up for opportunities down the road,” said Mackenzie. Specifically, Moor has been helping Mackenzie work on commercial real estate and financial modeling.
LeSage referred to Moor as “the teacher” of their house. Moor has also been introducing LeSage to some consulting case studies in addition to Mackenzie’s financial modeling. “We’re just trying to get what we can out of him while he is locked up,” joked LeSage. Moor does claim that he has learned just as much from his two roommates as they do from him. “They like to say I’m ‘the boomer’ of the house. So, they keep me young, make sure I’m on top of different things that are happening on Tik Tok,” said Moor, who still hasn’t downloaded the app himself. Perhaps, it should be noted that Mackenzie is actually older than Moor (but maybe it shouldn’t).
Another activity that they have all taken part in is weekly educational presentations. “Each week we put three subjects into a hat. One person pulls one out each and that week we do a little five-minute presentation on that topic”, explained Moor. The presentations are good for some knowledge and some laughs. Some of the topics that have been covered include French Wine (with a wine tasting included) and the Carbon Intensity of 1L of cow milk vs 1L of nut milk (oat and almond milk are the best).
Upcoming topics are Michelin Stars Ratings and Best Practices for Finding Love Online. The later is perhaps a topic we could all use some insight on in the age of social distancing. Best Practices for Finding Love Online will be presented by Mackenzie and he is insistent that it won’t be specifically directed at a particular roommate but also made this gesture while saying that…
Source: Derek Bressette via Zoom
Ultimately, whether it is learning a new language, building on career skills or French Wine lessons, Moor, Mackenzie, and LeSage have been spending a lot of time learning and developing new skills. The same mindset of constantly learning extends to their approach to rugby. “There are so many webinars now” said LeSage. LeSage has been able to do “a little bit of mind training” through watching the various webinars form rugby outlets across the world.
He highlighted two webinars from Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster on the principles of attack and defense that he found particularly insightful. LeSage shared his takeaways from Lancaster’s webinars with teammate Lucas Rumball over a game of Call of Duty. “Call of Duty is the new water cooler” declared LeSage.
Mackenzie is part of a group chat with all the Arrows scrumhalves (including the academy 9s). The scrumhalves have been sharing plenty of information in that chat. Makenzie also says that he will “watch as much rugby as I can”. He has enjoyed the influx of classic matches on YouTube now as he finds it fascinating to see how the game has evolved.
Rugby specific skills training has been a challenge. “We have one rugby ball between the three of us” said LeSage. LeSage then pointed to a video that he and Mackenzie filmed for The Rugby Shop and Toronto Arrows to claim that “Jamie’s pass is a little rusty”. As a result, the focus has been on staying fit. However, that has not always been easy. “To be honest, motivation wasn’t super high, for me personally, when we found out the season was cancelled and you don’t know what’s going to happen next,” admitted Mackenzie. He would go on to add that he took some time to “mentally reset” after the cancellation of the season.
The Toronto Arrows’ 2020 season is over, however, the possibility of exhibition games later in the year remains. All three of Moor, Mackenzie, and LeSage are internationally capped. Rugby Canada has announced that a match against the French Barbarians that was meant to be the Senior Men’s XV team’s first match in Montreal has been cancelled. Shortly after this interview was conducted, World Rugby announced the postponement of all international tests in July (Canada was set to play Italy in Halifax on July 11th).
Additionally, there are still plenty of question marks surrounding the Americas Rugby Championship set to begin in August. “Part of the challenge over the past couple of months is trying to stay fit for this question mark into the future”, said LeSage of the uncertainty of when rugby will return.
Mackenzie has regained his motivation. He believes that having two teammates as his roommates has been a big driving factor. “I’m especially lucky that Dan and Ben are my roommates. They are extremely dedicated, hard working guys,” said Mackenzie. Just hearing Moor and LeSage getting up early to do their workouts has been a big motivator for Mackenzie. Moor has been doing the grocery shopping, and that ensures everyone is eating the same foods, which helps keep everyone on track.
For workouts, they were able to pool together some resources to create a solid home gym. The Arrows strength and conditioning coaches gave them an assault bike from their own gym, Mackenzie was able to borrow some weights from his brother Phil, and Moor did the same from his parents. All three of them mentioned that they would rather be in that team environment. However, they have been finding ways to motivate each other knowing that they will get the chance to compete again. “We have to make sure we are game fit and healthy to be able to contribute if we do get an opportunity,” said Moor. It is still unknown when those opportunities will arise, but the work and preparation will continue.
Ultimately, all three are excited to get back on the pitch one day. “Just doing the Arrows’ Classics, sitting there watching those games; I’ve been ready to run through a brick wall by the end of them”, exclaimed Moor. The group is excited for the return of rugby across the globe, highlighting the start of Super Rugby Aotearoa on June 13th. LeSage also noted that he believes the domestic competitions will return prior to international play.
Regardless of whether it is in an Arrows or Canada kit, the COVID-19 pandemic could mean that when they return to the pitch, there will be no fans in attendance. Obviously, they would rather play in front of their fans, friends, and family. It would be an adjustment to see no one in the crowd, however, that does not mean they would not relish the opportunity to play again. “Anytime we get a chance to pull on either of those jerseys [Arrows or Canada] there is a great sense of pride”, said Moor, “you still get a chance to pull on that jersey, you still get a chance to compete with your teammates. We would still jump at those opportunities.”
Players and fans alike are hoping that those opportunities come sooner rather than later. The impacts of COVID-19 have been unprecedented. The sports world has been no exception. Much like anyone else, professional athletes have had to find new ways to utilize their time. For Dan Moor, Jamie Mackenzie, and Ben LeSage this has meant ensuring they stay fit and healthy for when they are able to return to the pitch. It also means taking the time to learn plenty of new skills such as Spanish, piano, the best practices for finding love online, and a wealth of business-related skills.
In true 2020 fashion, Zoom meetings and Call of Duty have become the best ways for them to connect with their teammates that are social distancing elsewhere. Ultimately, Mackenzie, Moor, and LeSage have enjoyed the extra time together, but they all can’t wait to get back out on the pitch.
You can follow Jamie Mackenzie @jmackerdoo, Ben LeSage @benlesage and @bens_bookshelf, and Dan Moor @dan.ag.moor. For all your Toronto Arrows news be sure to follow @BressetteTheJet and @LaymansSports on your favourite social media network.