Wednesday, April 23, 2008

There goes Steve Nash's hero

Diana Nethercott photo

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 23, 2008


Steve Nash, the basketball great, listed the five athletes who most inspired him as a boy growing up in Victoria.

He named Michael Jordan.

Greatest basketball player of his generation. Check.

He named Diego Maradona.

Brilliant Argentine soccer player. Check.

He named Glenn Hoddle.

The midfield maestro of English soccer. Check.

He named Wayne Gretzky.

Hockey's Great One. Of course. Check.

He named Kevin Alexander.

Kevin Alexander?! Who's he?

The television announcers were stumped by the name.

The vast majority of the audience watching the half-time programming of a Phoenix Suns basketball broadcast this month were undoubtedly as puzzled.

Kevin Alexander did not play hockey, or soccer, or basketball. He did not play Canadian football, or American football, or Australian Rules football. He was not a golfer, or a surfer, or a lawn bowler. He did not serve tennis balls, or roll bowling balls. He was not an Olympian.

He was a lacrosse player. A good one. A hall of famer.

These days, you can find him on weekday mornings at the Interurban campus of Camosun College. His desk is in a shared office in room 101A of the Jack White Building. His workplace is a cavernous and cacophonous space filled with anvils and welding booths and cutting tables.

It is here that he once studied – and now teaches – welding.

“I started here in '74,” he said. “Not much has changed.”

Once, he patrolled the lacrosse floor dressed in warrior's armour, fending off defenders in the vicious sport even as he scored goals by the bushel. Now, he wears a flip-down mask instead of a helmet and steel-toed boots instead of sneakers. His uniform is blue jeans and a blue cotton work jacket. A tag with his first name is above the breast pocket, an “instructor” tag on the left shoulder where he once wore the green shamrock of his hometown team.

The sleeves of his jacket are pocked by the telltale burns that are an occupational hazard. “You get the odd spark,” he shrugs. He showed a similar indifference when on the receiving end of the stick slashes that are legal in the game he loves.

A steady troop of students parade before him to show off their handiwork. Elsewhere in the shop, poor welds are on display with such captions as “cutting speed too fast” and “preheat flames too close to work.”

Asked what made for a good welder, he said, “Good eye-hand co-ordination. Lots of patience.”

Just like lacrosse. In the world of butt welds and stringer beads, the 52-year-old welder is also something of a hall of famer. The youngest son of a chimney sweep first entered this shop as a bushy-haired teenager in search of a trade to support himself.

He has worked as a welder at the pulp mill at Crofton on Vancouver Island, at a coal-fired power plant in Wyoming, at the Yarrow Shipyards in nearby Esquimalt, where he worked on icebreakers and several of the vessels in the B.C. Ferries fleet.

Welding is an itinerant trade, as was his chosen sport.

The suburbs of Victoria remain a pocket of support for Canada's national summer game, which thrives in such places as Brampton and Peterborough, Ont., as well as on such reserves as Kahnewake in Quebec and Six Nations in Ontario.

Mr. Alexander first wore a lacrosse uniform at age 5. At 13, he was working behind the bench as a water boy for the Victoria Shamrocks. They even let him play a single game the following year, a boy among men. At age 15, he scored 15 goals in five games.

A fill-in with the senior team, he was a star scorer for the junior squad, averaging almost eight points a game, helping the Victoria McDonalds win the storied Minto Cup as national champions in 1976. Mr. Alexander was named the most valuable player of the finals.

He grew to fill a solid, chimney-like physique and just kept on scoring with the senior Shamrocks. Sportswriter Cleve Dheensaw described Mr. Alexander being to lacrosse what “Nureyev was to ballet, Gretzky is to hockey and Fellini is to film.” He retired after 10 seasons as the fourth-highest scorer in history, guaranteeing a spot in the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame. Along the way, he helped Victoria claim Mann Cup titles as national champions in 1979 and 1983.

It was during those years that a young Steve Nash would have seen Mr. Alexander in action on the concrete floor of old Memorial Arena on Blanshard Street, a raucous home permeated with the smell of frying onions. Not for nothing was it known as the Barn on Blanshard.

For much of his career, he was a semiprofessional. “That means you better not quit your day job.” (For a time, the Victoria team was sponsored by a locally owned chain of discount gas stations, so Mr. Alexander's sweater read Payless, a mocking nickname.) He played outdoor lacrosse for Canada's national team and indoors professionally as a moonlighter from his realtor's job, flying across the continent to play for Buffalo on weekends, making about $4,000 in his best season, chump change to a hockey star.

Had he been as good at hockey, Canada's other national sport, he would have been a millionaire and a household name. The lack of a big pay day, or recognition, does not bother him in the least.

“When I started playing the game, there was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” he said.

So, he passes on what he knows about welding, amused to have stumped sports broadcasters. He looks forward to ribbing Mr. Nash the next time the two get together for a beer.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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