Get the Heck Into Dodge(ball)

Who needs the World Cup of Soccer? The World Dodgeball Championships are coming to Edmonton, and this city should pack the Saville stands for them

When we think of dodgeball, our minds go to a couple of places.

We remember our elementary school days, when the class was divided into two. The teacher would go to the equipment closet, and find that terrible red rubber ball that you can only find in schools (have you ever seen one at a sporting goods shop?). Then, the stronger kids would spend the next hour culling the weak. If you were the first target in dodgeball, it was a sign that your classmates regarded you as the runt of the litter, the easy mark.

And then there’s the movie. You know the one. That guilty comedy pleasure Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. For more than a generation, it’s been our link to the game.

So, when you learn that the World Dodgeball Championships are coming to Edmonton’s Saville Centre from Aug. 28-Sept. 4, you’re forgiven if the first things that come to mind are Average Joe’s and The Ocho.

But, when the movie is brought up in an interview with Edmonton-based national dodgeball players Jessica Shmigelsky and Jack Phavone, the first reactions are groans. They’ve heard the Average Joe’s jokes before. They’ve seen the memes.

Dodgeball the movie put the sport on the map, but it did nothing for the legitimacy of the sport,” says Shmigelsky, who is on the provisional roster for the women’s national side in the foam dodgeball division. “It completely devalued our sport. I go to the gym three times a week, and there are some very athletic human beings in dodgeball. And when people ask us, ‘Can you dodge a wrench?’ we just actually want to throw a wrench at them.”

National team members Shmigelsky, holding a foam ball, and Jack Phavone, holding a cloth ball. The foam ball can swerve and dip like a two-seamer or slider in baseball.

“Both Jess and I play other high-level sports, and they contribute to our play in dodgeball,” says Phavone. “But when we go to these other sports and say, ‘I have dodgeball practice and I’m training to be on the national team,’ other people think, ‘Oh wait, it’s dodgeball?’ They can’t fathom that there are other levels to dodgeball like you have in soccer or baseball or football.”

Canada is a power in the world dodgeball scene, and historically do well at these championships, alongside the likes of the Americans, the Australians and the Malaysians. There will be men’s, women’s and mixed world championships in the two styles of internationally recognized dodgeball — cloth and foam (more on that, later).

And, for dedicated dodgeballers, the long-term goal is to get the sport admitted into the Olympic program.

“There are many Olympic sports out there that most people have never heard of,” says Phavone. “When I was playing team handball, people didn’t know that it was an Olympic sport.”

(France won gold at the Tokyo Olympics in both men’s and women’s handball, by the way. Just wanted to save you the visit to Wikipedia.)

International dodgeball in no way resembles the self-esteem-crushing game from your school days. The balls are smaller, and there are multiple balls in play at a time. In cloth, there are five balls. In foam, there are six. The opening of a game looks a bit like a war zone, with multiple players being eliminated. But, as the numbers on each team decline, the strategy comes into play. Teams hoard balls so they can unleash a volley of shots at a target on the other side. There’s constant movement on the court.

Phavone says one goal of dedicated dodgeballers is to get the sport admitted into the Olympics.

The difference between the two balls? The foam balls is spongy, and the thrower can dig his or her fingers into it. The balls can swerve like a great pitcher throwing two-seamers and sliders. The cloth ball has a covering that makes it look almost like a volleyball, and gripping it is a little more difficult. The cloth game is more popular in Europe, where the foam game is more popular in other parts of the world, including Canada.

“I wouldn’t say it [foam ball] hurts, but you’ll feel it if you get hit in, let’s say, the face,” says Phavone. “But if you get hit in the body, it doesn’t essentially hurt.”

And then there’s the cloth ball.

“It gives you a little more of a shock to the system,” says Phavone. “It’s a little heavier and it’s got a lot more depth to it.”

Phavone is going to play in the men’s cloth division. He says the most common injuries in dodgeball are broken fingers. There are players at the top level who can throw in excess of 100 km/h. There are women on the national side who’ve been fastball pitchers.

“They come in hot,” says Shmigelsky. “I think all of my fingers are permanently numb.”

Both Shmigelsky and Phavone play regular league games in Dodgeball Edmonton. From there, the Edmonton league sends teams to provincial championships. Those rosters are whittled down, then players are sent to the national championships. In normal times, the national sides would be selected from that pool, but, because of COVID, players sent video submissions of themselves to the coaching staffs of the national sides, and those aided in the selection of players.

Just as in any elite sport, the players make a lot of trips around the province and the country for tournaments. And they have day jobs. It costs them thousands of dollars each year to fuel their love of the sport. And it’s hard for them to raise funds, a lot tougher than it is for the hockey or soccer parent who goes into their office selling raffle tickets.

“We try to do fundraising, but it’s hard as adults to say, ‘Hey, give me your money, because I’m playing this sport that no one actually takes seriously,’” says Shmigelsky. “You have to really love the sport — I can’t tell you how much money I’ve spent. But it’s worth it. I’ve met life-long friends through the community. It’s an awesome community, for sure.”

What would also be awesome is to see Edmonton, the city that brags about “Still in Edmonton,” and “Make Something Here,” fill the stands for the Championships. What better way to spend the Labour Day weekend than a few dodgeball matches. Tell your friends.

Let’s do this, Edmonton.