Pond Hockey with the Top Racquetball Player in the World
If you’re looking for professional athletes, the last place to go looking is in an adult hockey league.
Sure, you’ll find plenty of professionals– real estate brokers, physicians, executives, business owners, attorneys– but professional athletes? Adult league hockey is where we go to resurrect dreams of our youth about becoming professional athletes. It offers the player no prospects of advancement, nor any derivative career opportunities. Adult league hockey is a dead-end pursuit in the most pure sense.
Of course nobody plays it for those reasons. We all play it because we love the sport. And during any one game you forget that your winger is an anesthesiologist or that your opponent is an IT whiz with a family to support, and that’s as it should be.
Here in Austin there are two sheets of ice. One is a full sheet; the other is located at the Pond Hockey Club and is 150′ by 70′. Instead of the center red line being 94 feet from the goal line, at the pond the distance is about 68 feet. Recently, during a game at The Pond my team had a player I had not met before. He introduced himself as Kane. On his next shift, Kane did something jaw-dropping.
Playing defense, Kane was holding the center red line when the puck bounced out to him. With a player on his back, and without the benefit of having his skates planted beneath him, Kane unleashed an absolutely world-class snapshot. It was still rising when it painted the high stick-side corner just under the crossbar.
Stunned, I turned to a teammate on the bench. “Did you see that shot?”
“You know who he is, right?”
I said I didn’t. “I just met him.”
“That’s Kane Waselenchuk. Number one ranked racquetball player in the world. Maybe the greatest ever to play the game.”
That explained his other-worldly wrists. Later, with time running out, Kane launched a wrist shot from our goal line. It was headed top-shelf 138 feet away before the goalie got his glove on it.
“The Gretzky of Racquetball”
The short narrative on Waselenchuk is this: he began playing at 2 or 3, he’s largely self-taught, plays an unorthodox style– and is virtually unbeatable. The longer one includes the fact that he grew up in the suburbs of Edmonton, Alberta and played competitive ice hockey into his teens. After playing hockey alongside him and seeing just how good he was, I asked him why he chose racquetball over hockey.
“Hockey’s really political in Canada,” he said. “I got cut from a couple teams that I didn’t think I should have been cut from. To me, my future in the game was not in my own hands. In racquetball, it was.”
Local media in Edmonton have referred to him in the past as the Gretzky of Racquetball, which in itself might be the Babe Ruth of Ill-Fitting Metaphors. His unique abilities, his athletic self-reliance, his preference for an individual sport–his very reasons for leaving hockey–invalidate the comparison. The only aspects of the comparison with the Great One that stands are that at one time, the Edmonton Oilers showed some level of interest in both Wayne and Kane (although contrary to some information, he was never drafted) and that thirteen years into his racquetball career, Kane Waselenchuk is rewriting the record books in ways nobody thought possible:
- Currently, Kane is the No. 1 ranked player on the International Racquetball Tour (IRT). He has been number one for six straight seasons, and nine of the last eleven.
- He has won 78 IRT championships– the old record was 70–and this includes nine championships at the US Open, the most prestigious event in the sport. By way of comparison, nobody else has won more than four US Opens.
- In 2009 he began a winning streak that ran well into 2013, stretching an astonishing 137 matches. The old record was 54.
- En route to his 6th US Open championship, he dropped the first game of the match to his opponent before winning the next three. It was the first time he had ever lost a game in six US Open Finals matches.
- After going 49-1 in matches during the 2008-09 season, Kane went 34-0 the following season. Even more astonishing, racquetball matches are best-of-five: in those 34 matches, Kane lost just 3 games for a win-loss record in games of 102-3.
“I Will Be The Greatest Player Ever to Play the Game”
Although he learned to play from his father, Kane is almost entirely self-taught– an attribute that many say has led to his unorthodox style of play and his phenomenal success. Another attribute is his remarkable consistency, match to match, year after year.
“Along with that consistency, as a player, Kane doesn’t have a weakness,” says Evan Pritchard of The Racquetball Blog. “Every player has some weakness to his or her game. Except Kane. Speaking about him purely as an athlete– and I mean this across any sport– Kane is the best pure athlete you will ever see. And he brings a creativity to his game that you just don’t find in other players.”
Older players, who aren’t looking at Waselenchuk as a role model so much as a competitor are asking, ‘What can I do to beat this guy?’ but I’m saying, ‘What can I do to be like this guy’?
However, in 2001, as Kane began to tear up the court, he made a decision that speaks to the kind of competitor he is: For the first time, he took on a coach. Why would one of the tour’s top players need a coach at the age of 20 if he was having so much success without one? His coach, Hall of Famer Jim Winterton says,
He needed someone to see flaws in his game when everyone was telling him how great he was.
Reading that, it’s hard not to think of semiconductor pioneer Andy Grove’s famous quote about the pitfalls of success:
Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.
In trying to determine who the sport’s greatest player of all time is, racquetball historian Steven Bo Keeley divided the sport into four eras and named a different player to represent each era. For the current era, he picked Waselenchuk:
Kane is a lefty with a power serve, flat back-swing and early swing prep, and a crushing competitiveness. At the same time he pleases the juniors with trick shots on his knees and behind the back. He seems capable of doing anything on a racquetball court except losing … He is by far the most dominant champion within one era in history, and the gap between him and everyone else is vast.
Pritchard was willing to take that a step further and say that in his opinion Waselenchuk is not just the best of his era but the best ever to play the game.
His achievements are made that much more impressive with the knowledge that he lost two prime years, 2006-07 and 2007-08, after he failed a doping test near the end of the 2005-06 season and was temporarily sanctioned from the sport. His achievements are set to become that much more impressive because Kane is only 32 years old.
[A bizarre aside: the Kane Waselenchuk of pharmaceutical manufacturing?]
Fran Davis, the woman who coaches Rocky Carson, the player who is almost always finishing number two to Kane, told the New York Times,
People put Kane on a pedestal. But Rocky and others have got to believe that they are on the same planet and plane as Kane.
They aren’t. His accomplishments to date should put his name alongside other legends of individual sports, like Jack Nicklaus and Roger Federer; but racquetball is a much younger sport than either golf or tennis (and in many ways tougher– during pro games the ball can reach speeds in excess of 175 mph) so maybe in time it will. If Waselenchuk has his way, it will.
Where It Matters
One trait that is evident in Kane, whether in racquetball or hockey, is a relentless confidence that might be perceived as cockiness. But despite all his success, many of the players who skate in leagues at the Pond Hockey Club know Kane but very few of them have any idea of what he does for a living, or exactly how well he does it.
This is how hockey should be, a sport where the only thing about you that really matters is what you do on the ice … except in adult leagues, where what you do off it is pretty important too.
Author: Ross BonanderRoss Bonander is a freelance health writer and quotations editor. He is the editor of 12 quotation collections, including Hockey Talk, a collection of memorable hockey quotes, as well as collections focusing on Mario Lemieux, Patrick Roy,Steve Yzerman and Mike Modano. He also writes extensively about blood cancers and other health issues. His homepage is RossBonander.com.