Sports

HE’S A HURLING GRETZKY

A star Irish athlete is just another student in Halifax

KARIN MARLEY May 16 2005
Sports

HE’S A HURLING GRETZKY

A star Irish athlete is just another student in Halifax

KARIN MARLEY May 16 2005

HE’S A HURLING GRETZKY

Sports

A star Irish athlete is just another student in Halifax

KARIN MARLEY

TONY GRIFFIN is a local hero in Ireland. So life in Halifax is a bit strange for the star athleteturned-kinesiology student, especially when he grabs his hurley—a short hockey stick with a rounded end, like a paddle—and goes out for a run. “People think I’m going to attack them,” says Griffin, 24, a prolific scorer who has played in front of 80,000 fans back home but at Dalhousie University is just known as the Irish guy with the stick. “I’ve had people brace themselves because they didn’t know what was going to happen.” Canadians may know little about hurling, but it’s a good idea to avoid an on-rushing player. One of Ireland’s most popular sports, it’s a violent cross between lacrosse and field hockey in which players can run with the ball balanced on their hurley, hit it in the air, catch it, hit it on the ground, or even run with it in their hand for a short distance. “Basically,” Griffin says, “I try to get the ball in the net without getting killed.”

Griffin’s gift for finding the back of the net became apparent in his early teens, and at 16, he joined his brothers and cousins on the parish team in Ballyea, 30 km northwest of Limerick. “I remember being protective of him,” says his eldest brother Sean, 33, “because he would go in for quite a bit of punishment since he was well known as a talent.” A lanky youth, Griffin beefed up, worked hard and attracted scouts from the County Clare team, which signed him when he was 20. “He’s very strong and aggressive on the ball,” says teammate Diarmaid McMahon, 24. But even his close friend doesn’t gloss over Griffin’s “flaws.” “He doesn’t pass enough and is very greedy,” McMahon says with a laugh. “And he can be a bit cranky.” Like all top-tier hurlers in Ireland, Griffin

also plays for his parish team. In fact, fans raised money last year to fly him home from Halifax to play in local matches. His County Clare club also foots the bill for flights so their top gun is on side for big games. The National Hurling League is an amateur organization and players aren’t paid even though the league makes millions of euros a year from ticket sales. The money goes to building stadiums, funding youth teams and paying players’ expenses. Players, meanwhile, can’t be traded. “The fans are people you know

IN a St. Patrick’s Day newspaper story, Griffin pointed out that green beer is not, in fact, ‘an authentic Irish tradition’

and see all the time,” says Griffin. “It’s a very local sport, but the competition is no less ferocious than for pro athletes.”

Griffin thinks his County Clare team has a good shot at winning the championship this summer—it would be the first time since 1997—but he’s cautious. “If I was in Ireland,” he says, “I wouldn’t be saying this at all because it would be in the paper in the morning. You’d have to stand by your word.” The intense scrutiny is one reason Griffin came to Canada. “At home we’re judged on

the game we played the previous day,” he says. “I needed to grow up mentally by getting away from that.” He had heard glowing reviews of Dalhousie’s kinesiology program from Travis McDonough, County Clare’s team chiropractor and the son of Halifax MP Alexa McDonough. “Tony’s become intrigued with sports science and how various technical training programs affect performance,” explains John McCabe, a kinesiology professor at Dal. “That was something lacking in his own background.” Griffin, who has two years left to complete his degree, works out six days a week. “If you don’t,” he says, “the day there’s 50,000 people in a stadium is when you’ll be found out.” He has also been practising on a squash court and has recruited several classmates to hurl with. “The guys who play ice hockey,” he says, “get it straight away.” Alexa McDonough, who describes her son’s pal as the “Wayne Gretzky of southern Ireland,” is impressed with how he’s dealt with the transition from celebrity to anonymity. “I think a lot of superstar athletes would have a tough time with it,” she says. “But he’s just so enthusiastic about taking up every new experience.” And recently, his cover was blown by the Halifax Herald, which ran a St. Patrick’s Day story about the famous Irishman at Dalhousie in which he pointed out that green beer is not, in fact, “an authentic Irish tradition.” But he doesn’t seem to hold the errant stereotype against his new city. “I said to my mother,” he says, “that if I meet the right girl, I could stay here.” ITU