By Jasmin Winter and Andrew Ajisebutu
The Winnipeg Whomping Willows, Manitoba’s only quidditch team, came to be through the work of a group of very passionate people. The team was founded in 2014 by Willow Rosenberg and a group of their friends. Rosenberg had invested in initial equipment and brought interested players together to build hoops and brooms and to pick a first practice time, all organized in their apartment.
Practices for the first year were held at the gorgeous Assiniboine Park, as the team battled mosquitoes during the summer and snow during the winter. The resiliency and drive of the young team pushed them to compete that same year at the North Star Cup in Minneapolis, the 2015 Western Canadian Regional Championship, and the 2015 Canadian National Championship.
Starting a team is certainly a difficult endeavor. The cost and headache of building equipment, finding practice space, and recruiting players can often feel like thankless work, but Rosenberg, who has “done a lot of random things on a whim over the years,” feels that “the Willows is the one I’m most proud of.” To then take a team of fresh new players to the United States and halfway across the country is all the more admirable, and a testament to the hardworking legacy of all the early Willows players.
Jasmin Winter and Andrew Ajisebutu, former McGill Quidditch players, joined the team in September 2015 and used their experience from Montreal to help build on the Willows’ success of the previous year. The Willows’ player base began to shift as Rosenberg and some of the original players moved on (and out of the country). Winter, and her sister Asia Winter, as students of the University of Winnipeg, established a partnership with the university’s student association, which has helped facilitate recruitment, advertising, and fundraising initiatives. The Willows are considered an affiliated group, which means that the group consists of both students and community members and can receive funding externally. The team’s butterbeer sales have become a staple on campus, and they even hosted a kidditch camp for neighbourhood youth over spring break. By integrating themselves within the university, the Willows have been able to find firm footing even as older players left.
As difficult as building a team is, maintaining one can be just as challenging. The Willows began striving for weekly practices with tried-and-true drills and scrimmages, with the ultimate goal of creating a team ready for Canadian competition (even with uncertainty as to from where that competition would actually arise). As a result, the Willows grew steadily from five players to about 15 over the course of 2015. This allowed the team to be able to travel to Moose Jaw and play in the Moose Madness tournament against teams from Alberta. The new players got a taste for competition, and five went on to travel 15 hours for the Solsnitch tournament in Edmonton that summer, with one player attending the Vancouver Fantasy tournament.
Going into their third year, the Willows are eager for more competition. However, this is no easy task, as the Willows are currently isolated from the core quidditch centres of both eastern and western Canada. The closest Ontario teams are those in Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area, and Regina Quidditch Club, of the neighbouring province Saskatchewan, has been met with the very same challenges as Winnipeg. This is, however, not simply a Canadian issue; the Midwest region by the border of Montana and North Dakota is also a barren quidditch landscape. Perhaps the low population density, the lack of international and out of province students looking to try something new, the longer winters, or a mix of these factors contribute to quidditch start-ups being a tougher sell in the Prairies.
That being said, the Willows are committed to at least attempting to bridge the Canadian divide. This was demonstrated this summer with the incredible amount of effort put into a bid for the 2017 Quidditch Canada National Championship. Unfortunately, facility costs proved to be the ultimate barrier to realizing the potential of a truly central Canadian national tournament.
Still, the determination and optimism of the Willows persists, which is important given the big decisions that need to be made this year. Looking ahead, with the 2016 Western Regional Championship and 2017 Quidditch Canada National Championship both taking place in British Columbia, the Willows’ decision on whether or not to join Quidditch Canada is a tough one. Although access to these competitions – as well as a seat on the newly-instituted Team Council – would absolutely be beneficial, the financial cost and limited capacity to meet regulatory expectations may be too great.
The Willows are seriously considering planning out another unofficial tournament with the Albertan teams, a potential trip to Ontario, or even going ahead with a tournament in Winnipeg that would include official games for other teams. The pros and cons for these options are fairly extreme, but the Willows are set on finding a way to compete and showcase their hard work. While it cannot yet be said that Prairie quidditch is established in Canada, the drive, passion, and love for the sport that has fostered other teams has certainly been built in the area. In other words, the Winnipeg Whomping Willows have taken firm root and are more than ready to branch out.
Editor’s Note: Although facility costs were a factor, the deciding factor to eliminate Winnipeg as the choice to host the 2017 Canadian National Championship was the fact that the gameplay would have to be split between two fields that were a 30 minute drive apart.