A well-used denim jacket has been awarded like a medal.
It’s been given to one Canadian player to wear after every game at the World Lacrosse Championships since 2014, a tradition that’s continued in Netanya, Israel.
But it’s not awarded to the best player or the one who deserves it the most; it’s given to somebody who exemplifies Canadian lacrosse.
The jacket belonged to the late goaltender Chris Sanderson.
It was a gift from Sanderson’s widow, Brogann, to her husband’s Canadian teammate Brodie Merrill, before the Worlds in Denver four years ago.
After backstopping Canada to gold that year, the tattered, classic Levi’s, denim jacket was given to goalie Dillon Ward, who was the first goalie in history to be named tournament MVP.
The jacket has held space in Ward’s closet since that July until it travelled with him to Netanya earlier this month.
“I’d bring it out from time to time when I was going out,” said Ward, who looked up to Sanderson in their hometown of Orangeville, Ont., growing up.
“To be able to have that in my closet, knowing where it came from and what it meant to players, it was pretty special to hold on to it for four years.”
As Canadian as a jean jacket, music from The Tragically Hip has been playing constantly in Israel.
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Sanderson, along with the late Kyle Miller, were big fans.
“The aura that’s around everything that we do, from the music we listen to, to the stories we tell. Chris and Kyle are very much a part of that ethos of the team,” said Geoff Snider, Canada’s veteran face-off specialist, who’s been a member of Team Canada since 2006.
“There’s character and culture that surrounds this program that has been forged by the sacrifices of some of these guys and just embodies what it means to be a Canadian player.”
The two Canadian goaltenders, Sanderson and Miller, lost battles to cancer just over a year apart.
Brain cancer claimed the life of Sanderson at age 38 in June 2012. Sanderson, a member of the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame, played in four consecutive World Championships from 1998 to 2010 and brought home gold wearing jersey number 17 in 2006, Canada’s first title in 28 years.
Miller wore number 35 as a goalie on that 2006 gold-medal winning roster before retiring from lacrosse. He died in June 2013 at the age of 31 from osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer.
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Dave Huntley, responsible for much of the growth of Canada’s field lacrosse game, died suddenly of a heart attack in December 2017. He was 61.
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As a player, Huntley wore number 18 and was a member of Canada’s first gold-medal winning team at the World Championships in 1978. Huntley joined the coaching staff for five consecutive tournaments until 2010, when he transitioned to the men’s field program director.
While Huntley had a role in all three of Canada’s gold medal victories on the international stage, he’s responsible for so much more than world titles.
“The way that everybody conducts themselves here in this event, the style of lacrosse we’re playing and ultimately the way we are as a team is a reflection of what Dave would have wanted for this program,” said Snider.
For Ward, thoughts of Sanderson, Miller, and Huntley were sparked well before stepping on the field in Israel. It was when he received his helmet ahead of the Games that his mind went to memories of the three men.
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“There’s a maple leaf and three numbers, 35, 17, and 18, in the middle of it and it was just a moment of reflection to look back at those guys and what they’ve meant to me personally and to Canada lacrosse. Everything we do comes back to what they meant to this program,” said Ward.
“Chris, Kyle, and Dave all wore their heart on their sleeve and they epitomized what it meant to be a Canadian lacrosse player. They held everyone accountable and that’s kind of what’s become the face of Canada lacrosse, that blue-collar, smash-mouth style, holding each other accountable and playing a tough, gritty game.”
Canada’s been clicking on the field at the World Lacrosse Championships, but at times this spring, boarding a plane to Israel seemed like a long shot, let alone defending a world lacrosse title.
But they’ll now have a chance to do both.
Canada will play for gold this weekend, just over a month after the lengthy labour dispute was settled with the sport’s governing body, the Canadian Lacrosse Association.
“Once that deal got done we put it behind us and focused on what we had to do as players,” said Snider, who played a key role for players during discussions. “You don’t have time to sit and dwell on what went on, you just go to work.”
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The Canadians finished second in their group with a 4-1 record, the lone loss coming against the Americans, the top-seeded team that Canada will now face-off against in Saturday’s final.
It’s the sixth straight tournament these two countries meet in the final, including the 2014 gold medal game, which Canada won 8-5, claiming its third world lacrosse title.
“Our fight started a lot earlier than this tournament. The tragic news of losing Dave Huntley was tough, the players decided to unionize and take a stand against the CLA, and there was the threat that we weren’t even going to make it to Israel,” said Ward.
“Now we’re here, battling for a gold medal.”
Canada plays the United States at 3:00 a.m. EST Saturday morning with a chance to win back-to-back world titles for the first time.