Blanleils gather in Kelowna for Andre Sr. fastball tourney
If you stroll down to King Stadium near downtown Kelowna this weekend, chances are you may bump into a Blanleil or two.
Or a whole fastball team of them, for that matter.
The Kelowna Major Men's Fastball Association is hosting its second annual Andre Blanleil Sr. Memorial Fastball Tournament this Father's Day weekend, honouring a man that first started playing fastball in the 1960s and raised a family of athletes who have carried on his legacy over the years.
Andre Jr, and brothers Maurice and Rene will be cornerstones of the Andres Athletics, playing alongside the youngest generation of Blanleils in Andre's kids Kyle, Chad and Travis.
"It's fun to be involved with an event like this when its your family's name associated with it," said Kyle Blanleil, who at 27 is the oldest of Andre Junior's three kids. "It's fitting it falls on Father's Day weekend. There will be a lot of family around having a good time at the park. It's good to see a lot of alumni with the major men's fastball league, guys that played with my Grampa in the '60s and guys that played with my dad over the years."
The Andre's Athletics are one of six teams taking part in the event this weekend. Four teams from Kelowna will hit the field in the modified double-knockout format, which begins on Friday, goes all day Saturday and wraps up Sunday at 1 p.m. with the final.
Kyle says the best part of the weekend is the focus on family and he noted it will be extra special to see his grandmother Eileen at the park in her familiar spot behind home plate where she can get an extra word in with the umpires if needed.
"She comes to every single game and she was actually the first person in the family to play fastball," said Kyle. "She'll have her spot right at the gate, yelling at the umpires. All my uncles and aunts and cousins will be there."
Andre Sr. both played with and coached his kids and also coached many of his grandchildren along the way. He not only passed his love of the game onto the younger generations but also a competitive spirit.
"When we were growing up my Grampa was probably the fiercest competitor out of everyone," said Kyle. "I didn't see him play but coaching he was a very intense guy. There was a joke that you never wanted to make an error when he was on the pitching mound because he would not be happy."
Fastball is that rare sport where age doesn't really hamper ability. Many fastball pitchers are amongst the oldest on their team and can still throw hard as the wind-nill (under-hand) style is less stressful on the pitching arm.
However with no youth fastball leagues, young players and pitchers are a commodity, meaning the sport features plenty of veterans without a lot of young players coming up through the ranks.
Brothers Andre, Maurice and Rene exemplify that and have won many different titles over the years, including Western Canadian masters championships.
"It's really cool to see they are the older group of players but they are still the top players in the league," said Kyle of his dad and uncles. "You just see how much time and effort they have put in over the years. It's really fun having the whole Blanleil clan out there. We are all super competitive. It's always an intense game. Us young guys are just trying to keep up with the old guys."
You can check out some excellent fastball this weekend at King's Stadium at the Andre Blanleil Sr. Memorial Fastball Tournament. A day pass is $5 and a tournament pass is $10 and there is a concession and refreshments available.
Kyle Blanleil isn't the same athlete he once was.
A fierce competitor in fastball and hockey, Kyle's athletic career was put on hold eight years ago, when at the age of just 19, he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumour in his back.
He was a goalie playing junior hockey with the Campbell River Storm when he first noticed severe pain in his back that wasn't going away. An MRI would identify a cancerours tumour wrapped around four vertabrae in Kyle's back, forcing him to retire from junior hockey to focus on his health.
Now 27, Kyle works at Andre's Electronics, still plays fastball (see story) and is cancer free.
"I just passed my seventh year cancer free," said Kyle this week as he helped organize a fastball tournament in his grandfather's name. "Mobility and strength are the two areas that have been most affected. At times it's frustrating because I'm not as good as I once was. As competitive as I am, that's frustrating. But it's great to be out there."
After the diagnosis, doctors would operate on Blanleil in Vancouver, removing the tumour, and the four vertabrae in a 23 hour surgery. Bone from one of his legs and titanium rods were used to replace the vertabrae and get Kyle back on his feet.
Two years or hard rehab as well as more treatment to make sure the cancer stayed away and Kyle was on the road to recovery. So much so that he eventually returned to the fastball diamond. And the competitive juices that flowed through him never went away.
In 2009, playing at the senior C fastball provincials, Kyle made a diving attempt for a ball. The dive would break the bone that doctors had used to replace his vertabrae, leaving him temporarily paralyzed on the ball field after the bone came in contact with his spinal chord, but didn't sever it.
It would lead to another 18 hour surgery to replace the bone. Kyle remembers laying on the field, unable to move, and says the moment made him realize he had to change the way he played.
"I have to play smart," he said. "I can still play hard but I have to play smart. It's tough for me because I've always been a person who plays hard and works hard. But what sports taught me about working hard, has definitely helped me get through this."