Quidditch on an Island

By Misha Whittingham

Vancouver Island: a hunk of rock, trees, and marmots off the coast of British Columbia roughly the size (and shape if you really squint) of the Netherlands. With a population of around 750,000, this pretty, quiet, and isolated little landmass is no league commissioner’s first choice to put a sports team of any description. And yet somehow, on this rock in the Pacific, there is quidditch.

A sunset off the coast of Lantzville, near Nanaimo, Vancouver Island. | Photo Credit: Ron Kirk photography.

Victoria, BC (the largest city on Vancouver Island) is home to western Canada’s first quidditch team, the University of Victoria (UVic) Valkyries. In September 2010, team founders Anna Jessop and John Robertson willed quidditch into existence in Victoria. That early team was quickly followed by the UBC Thunderbirds in nearby Vancouver, BC, and the roots of British Columbian quidditch took hold. Over the following years, the Valkyries grew in popularity at UVic, attending World Cup V in New York and sending three members to play for Team Canada at Global Games in 2012. Since then, as the appeal of quidditch expanded throughout southern BC and the rest of western Canada, the level of competitive play rose, and the Valkyries were outclassed by their more competitive neighbours. This probably strikes you as a story similar to Middlebury College: a school that takes to quidditch early on wanes and gets pushed aside as local and general play becomes more and more focused on competition. And while this was (and is) partly true – UVic is still generally regarded as the laid-back, “for funsies” team in BC – part of the decline of the team stems from a less solvable problem: living on an island.

A two-way trip to Victoria alone in a car from greater Vancouver takes about six to seven hours and will ring you up over $200 CAD, and this is assuming you live right next to the ferry on the mainland side. As a result, most teams can only afford to make one trip over to the island, and the Valkyries’ limited funds must be stretched immensely in order to attend any tournaments hosted elsewhere. The team still plays on a patch of mud in the middle of the UVic campus and did not have proper brooms or hoops until earlier this year. Having to cough up on average $800 CAD just to get a team to any given tournament forces a level of commitment on the part of the players that most students are not willing to make for any sport, much less one they have barely heard of. The end result is an understocked team that gets little experience against local competition.

Of course, the issues of isolation are not unique to UVic, and travel costs are a dominant part of every quidditch team’s budget, but these issues are felt acutely on Vancouver Island. For a couple of years, with most of the original core of the team having graduated, and the rest of BC getting steadily more competitive, Vancouver Island quidditch appeared doomed. The struggle is not lost on the Valkyries’ current president, Cynthia Chao, who noted “The biggest challenge to our team is I think geography …(with) nobody established who our team regularly can play against.”

The UVic Valkyries celebrating the end of another winless tournament, this time at Canadian Western Regionals in Abbotsford, British Columbia | Photo Credit: JYK Photography

However, that issue may be coming to a close, as UVic is not the only team on Vancouver Island any more. One hundred and eleven kilometres north of Victoria in the city of Nanaimo, community member Emily Hingston and Vancouver Island University (VIU) student Edward Nathanson, with the help of Valkyries leadership, founded the Nanaimo Nightwings in January 2016. Support for the team since its inception has been enormous, coming from players and teams across BC and western Canada. As the Nightwings come into their first full season, they hope to draw players from VIU and the community, as well as establishing themselves as a consistent local presence.

Back in Victoria, early members of the Valkyries starting to return to the island. Spearheaded by veterans John Robertson, Meg Howden, and Sean Goode, the Victoria Vanishing Cabinets (or Van-Cabs) community team are in the process of formation, while Valkyries co-founder Anna Jessop has also returned with intention of bringing quidditch to Victoria’s Camosun College this fall. This sudden spike in expansion of the sport on the island, alongside an unexpectedly large Valkyries rookie class, will make the 2016-17 season a remarkable one for the island.

With interest piquing in the sport at the VIU Duncan campus and in the Vancouver Island school districts, the future is looking unsurprisingly bright (it is the warmest part of Canada, after all) and surprisingly quidditch-y for Vancouver Island. But for now, let us take a closer look at the newest Vancouver Island quidditch teams.

The new Nanaimo Nightwings come into the scene as a rare combination of community and university players, with Emily Hingston being a Nanaimo-born resident, and Edward Nathanson being involved in the athletics system at VIU. With VIU, being a relatively new school, and Nanaimo having a population of just 83,000 (and support for just one minor-league professional sports team), combining the two is likely the only way the Nightwings will be able to accumulate and maintain anything close to a full roster. However, the team may benefit from their association with VIU athletics, bringing in more athletic players that other quidditch teams often take much more time and establishment to attract. As the Nightwings have made their aspirations to participate in competitive play clear, bringing in trained athletes will be invaluable. The resultant Nanaimo experiment, if successful, could serve as a template for other small schools and towns hoping to build a quidditch presence of their own.

Nightwings chaser Edward Nathanson (left) is helping spearhead Nanaimo’s push toward competitive play. | Photo Credit: Nanaimo Nightwings Quidditch

While the Nightwings are attempting to put themselves on the fast track to contention in QC, the attitude of the new Victoria Vanishing Cabinets is a little more relaxed. The Van-Cabs are comprised primarily of the returning and graduating old guard from the earlier years of the UVic Valkyries. The team is also comprised of recent community members of the Valkyries, including veteran David Warburton. In fact, most of UVIC’s remaining experienced talent has transferred over to the new community team. Support for quidditch in Victoria as a whole is also growing, and it won’t be surprising to see a relatively well-stocked Van-Cabs roster next season. Although the team should be tough to beat, there is a very real likelihood that the Van-Cabs will not join competitive play beyond tournaments on Vancouver Island. Much of the team, including some of their leadership, have full-time jobs and subscribe to a more relaxed approach towards the sport. While there are still highly competitive players on the squad, it is unclear whether they can, or should, push the Van-Cabs towards competitive play. The competitive-recreational debate is not unique to the Vanishing Cabinets, and the development of popular recreational quidditch in Victoria could be just as valuable to growing the sport on the island as the addition of a competitive team.

Skilled veteran Valkyries beaters Josh Stelting and Laura Lavallee are among the UVic grads joining the Vanishing Cabinets in September and should add some significant skill to the new squad. | Photo Credit: Danny Ly Photography

That growth of competitive quidditch may come in the form of Camosun College and VIU Cowichan. While there are no current or former quidditch players in the Cowichan Valley (home of the VIU Cowichan campus), the area, home to 80,000, is perfectly located directly between Nanaimo and Victoria. The Cowichan Valley has already been used for one Vancouver Island quidditch event this season, and with an upcoming quidditch demonstration event in September at VIU Cowichan and the area’s likely use for future Vancouver Island Quidditch tournaments and events, the residents of the Cowichan Valley should be getting a lot more accustomed to quidditch in the coming years. With any luck, that should lead to at least recreational play. Camosun College represents a wholly different challenge.

While the college has a sizeable student base spread over two campuses in greater Victoria, the majority of its students only require two years on average for their studies before either transferring to UVic or re-entering the community. This has made it extremely difficult for Camosun to maintain many clubs, much less sports teams.

Despite this, prospective founder Anna Jessop is optimistic, stating that “the easy part is that Quidditch has grown so much that we no longer need to explain ourselves as much…The challenges of course will be at camosun there may be…students who are only at school part time, or are working as well as school at the same time, a more diverse age range…and recruiting will be different with most students only staying for two years, but then we’re just setting them up for UVics team… Personally my biggest challenge will be deciding what direction this team will go and finding someone to support and run the team when I’m gone.”

Though she and any other students who join will not likely be at Camosun for long, a team there could at least create a brief influx of experienced players for both the Valkyries and Van-Cabs as graduating players move on from the college.

As quidditch takes a stronger foothold on the island, its strength in western Canada and the remainder of the Pacific Northwest also grows. Vancouver Island’s strength will also make BC more and more of a prime location for quidditch, opening the door for more major tournaments to be held in southern BC. This is especially true in winter, when the vast majority of the rest of Canada is snow-covered, making venues expensive and sparse outside of Vancouver Island and the lower mainland, as they will need to be covered or indoors. While still an expensive trip, this provides more options of which the fledgling Quidditch Canada could take advantage.

Players from the UVic Valkyries, Vancouver Vipertooths, Nanaimo Nightwings, and SFU Quidditch came together in March for Nanaimo’s first quidditch tournament. | Photo Credit: Kassidy Smids-Dyk

As teams on the island compete with one another, the level of competition will finally be allowed to grow, and strong teams may again begin to emerge from the warm, green underbelly of Canada. This is a future being recognized more widely, including by Cynthia Chao, who remarked “next year and beyond is going to be a radically different Valkyries. I joined a fun loving family of weirdos three years ago, and I truly hope we always maintain that spirit, but the sport is changing and we’re becoming more competitive to keep up with that.” Of course, this is not a success story yet, but it is shaping into one. For any other isolated locales for quidditch, this may serve as inspiration to not be an expensive regional appendix, but instead to develop your little pocket of the world until the competition comes to you.

1 Comment

  1. Great article, and very exciting developments.

    "The competitive-recreational debate is not unique to the Vanishing Cabinets, and the development of popular recreational quidditch in Victoria could be just as valuable to growing the sport on the island as the addition of a competitive team."

    I totally agree with this point. The ability to have development-level teams in Alberta which merged to form first one and then two competitive travel (League) teams is why we have been able to grow the sport and develop talent (while still having fun, I think!) in Alberta.

    I personally would love to see a united Vancouver Island team (under the UVic name or another) with say 30-ish people from across the island to play on mainland tournaments and frequent development team play to develop the talent on the island.

    And don't let the 30 number scare you—Alberta Clippers started with 14 people saying yes to travel in September (and at least two of those people never did play with us at a tournament!) and we ended with 27-ish traveling with us to the first Nationals (some as Whomping Willows, which was amazing).

    Regardless, it should be great on the island!

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