The closest airport is about three hours away. A two-lane country highway is the only way into a town that has fewer than 3,000 residents. The team that hosts the tournament can barely field a full A-side. Those are not exactly ideal conditions for hosting one of the largest tournaments in the country.
However, the town is Lake Placid, N.Y. which hosted the Winter Olympics that saw the U.S. Olympic hockey team upset the Russians in the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980 and had already hosted the Winter Games in 1932. Lake Placid is still an Olympic Training center with bobsled runs, ski jumps and of course an ice rink. But every year, usually the first weekend in August, Lake Placid and neighboring Saranac Lake host over 100 teams at the CanAm Rugby Tournament which is one of the biggest rugby tournament in the U.S.
“It takes a lot of hard work by a number of people, but we have kept it going,” said Jan Plumadore, who founded the host team, the Mountaineers in 1971 in Saranac Lake, just a lake or two away from Lake Placid. He said the teams early games were a bit, “undisciplined” as the Mountaineers learned how to play rugby. In 1974 as a way to say thanks to the opposition the Mountaineers invited eight teams up to Saranac for a weekend tournament. Fees were $25 to cover the costs of trophies. Old Blue of New York, the Albany Knicks, the Schenectady Reds and a team that became Bytown from Ottawa, Canada were four of the inaugural CanAm teams and they all still play every year.
The next year the tournament expanded to 16 teams. By 1980 there were 64 teams including a women’s group of three teams - which by 1984 became a full division. New teams needed more fields and by 1982 venues in Lake Placid were added. That opened up the number of teams competing to some 100, where it stands today. About one third of the teams are from Canada and the rest come from mostly the Northeastern U.S., but teams have come from all over the U.S. and the world. Today more teams stay in Lake Placid and it has become the defacto center of the tournament, especially the post-game socializing. The result is a party atmosphere where old teammates run into each other all over town and each team has its own tradition of places to meet, bars to leave a jersey behind and hotels where they are welcomed back each year.
Organizers explained that part of the success of the tournament is that Lake Placid is a small town that can handle big events. Since the town hosts one of the premier Ironman Triathlons, a major lacrosse tournament and Olympic level horse shows, hosting a rugby tournament is not a unique challenge.
“The scenery, the camaraderie and the ability to compete, that’s what makes this tournament special,” said utility prop Terry O’Donnell, who has been coming to the CanAm tournament for 22 years as one of the original old boys for Boston’s Mystic River Hombres. This year was O’Donnell’s last as at 60 years old, he has decided to hang up his boots and finally get the knee surgery he has put off; that is, after one more trip to Lake Placid.
Making the trip up from Washington, D.C., Brian Collins, this year is playing for the WARTS, The Washington Area Rugby Touring Side. His career at Saranac started over five years ago with the Ancient Warriors, an old boys touring side of Washington DC and Baltimore area players.
“It is fitness and social and if you happen to win, great,” Collins said. “It is great fun to be part of a rugby community for the weekend.”
The old boys division is probably the biggest growth for the tournament as over 35, 40s, 45 and 50’s divisions have been created at CanAm says Plumadore. “These were young boys once. They played as kids, now coming with families of their own and looking forward to it.”
The rise of the old boys divisions caused the tournament to add a day. Old Boys play begins on Friday with a day off on Saturday and finals on Sunday. Saturday’s old boys head to some of the many golf courses, spend a day on Mirror Lake in Lake Placid or just cheer on their young boys. Both players and organizers agree that the beauty of the Adirondack Mountain region is one of the reasons why the tournament keeps people coming back.
Jay Annis is the tournament director and said a small group of tournament directors meet monthly all year long to plan out the event. He said while there have been a few incidents over the years, for the most part no team wants to get banned from playing, so despite the huge numbers of players out celebrating victories or drowning their defeats in the local craft beers, the problems have been minor.
“When you get guys that say thanks and I’ll be back next year you gotta be doing something right,” Annis said. “Teams are registering for next year before all the games are even played. Our success, like anything is some luck, good people and good location it’s a combination that just clicks. People have fun. It’s like why we all play rugby. No one wants to give it up. It’s a sport where you just keep going.”
There is talk of adding more youth divisions and perhaps adding a Seven’s division. For now, the tournament raises money to keep itself going, support the Mountaineers men’s and women’s teams and donate to other Lake Placid and Saranac Lake youth sports. “All we are trying to do it keep tournament going, help the local town and economy and have fun playing rugby. Our goals are to get real rugby fields in Saranac Lake with lights and stands. Our ultimate goal is to have U.S. Eagles here, we are very close to Canada,” he said sowing the seeds for an Eagles vs. Canada match.
With a social division, club and premier play and old boys there is rugby at CanAm for everyone. And every team travels for different reasons, but they all come up to be a part of something special.
“Playing with the Olde Girls, since many of us live all over the country it is a reunion for us,” said Liz Cass who has been coming to CanAm with the nation’s maybe only premier old girls team since 1995, when they started they were called the Touring Women Over Thirty, now they are known as the Olde Girls.
“It is the feeling of seeing our teammates year after year and enjoying ourselves,” Cass said. “I have not missed a year in over 20 years; it is just part of my calendar every year.”