By: Jesse Fraim
2016 is the beginning of my third season traveling around the Midwest playing kubb. I do not play in a lot of tournaments, but I try to pick at least one “major” tournament to attend other than the granddaddy of them all (the U.S. National Kubb Championship in Eau Claire, WI every July). In 2014, I attended the Fall Kubb Klassic in Des Moines, Iowa. In 2015, I played at the Rockford Swedish Historical Society Kubb Tournament in Rockford, Illinois.
At the start of the year, I had the extremely good fortune of being asked to play on a team Ryan Kolden was assembling for the Loppet.
Captain Ken’s Kubb Tournament is the largest winter tournament in the world and is part of the City of the Lakes Loppet in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It’s played on a frozen lake near downtown and there are hundreds of athletes surrounding the grounds competing in skiing, skating, and other winter events. Last year, there were over 12,000 athletes competing over the span of the 3 day event. Since the beginning of my obsession with this sport, I have wanted to attend this tournament. There is just one small problem; I’m 8.5 hours away from Minneapolis. There is no chance my wife is going to like me traveling this distance by myself in the middle of winter.
Enter Phil Dickinson, who has quickly become my kubb hero. Phil is an honorary member of Kalamazoo Kubb, founding member of Great Lakes Kubb, and director of the Michigan 1v1 Championship and the Great Lakes Kubb Championship in Alanson, Michigan. Phil is the true definition of a kubb fanatic. He decided that if I would play on Ryan and Phil’s team, he would drive from Alanson south through Kalamazoo and take me to Minneapolis with him. If that sounds like a nice offer, you don’t know the half of it. That is a 4 hour, 235 mile detour south just for me! The combination of this travel arrangement and the offer by Ryan’s family to stay at their house, made it too good to refuse. I am blessed with a loving and compassionate wife that has always encouraged me along my kubb journey, and we both agreed I should accept the offer.
Finally the weekend of the tournament had arrived and as I finished jamming my bags, boots, and at least six pairs of winter gloves into the back of Phil’s kubb-mobile (his car literally has the Michigan license plate “kubb”), I felt like we were Jack and Elwood from the Blues Brother movie.
“It’s 550 miles to Minneapolis, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of Twizzlers, it’s sunny…and we’re going kubbing.”
Phil and I had the opportunity to talk kubb many times, though not many in-person. Technology has done such a great job of shrinking the world and opening up lines of communication. We have spent many hours discussing, debating, and sharing ideas around this wonderful sport. We even had a chance to play in a tournament together, winning our first kubb trophies at Rockford 2015 in the consolation brackets, but that seemed so long ago. You would think that 8.5 hours is just too long to talk kubb, but you would be wrong. The entire trip there and back was filled with discussions, ideas, and motivating each other around becoming better players, teammates, and leaders for kubb in Michigan.
We left Kalamazoo in the morning and arrived in Minnesota just after dark. We arrived tired, sore (that long ride in a car seat hurts your back), and ready to relax. So how do you relax the night before a major tournament? You play kubb of course! Over the next 4 hours we played countless games… 1-on-1, 2-on-1, all three of us versus ourselves…I loved every minute of it. When you get people together who are as passionate as you are and spend as much time as you do bettering their game, those are the games you cherish. This time, in the back yard, with the security lights on and the beer and music flowing, this would be the time I remember the most from the weekend. Learning who would be the best in each role, what our game plan would be, who would take what shots, that’s the fun of being on a competitive team. Of course, we also had to see who was the best player between the three of us.
Heading to bed that night, I wasn’t sure what to expect on tournament day. I felt we may have a showdown in group play with the St. Paul Kubb Soceity. Indications were we would face the Kubbsicles in the championship bracket. I could prognosticate the final four, but you never know what will happen. All I knew that night, as I struggled to fall asleep, staring at the ceiling, thinking about all the practice I put in to get here, was that this was the best team I ever been on. This was the best chance I had at winning a tournament and that really excited me. I remember wanting to feel this way every time I play competitive kubb. I want to feel this way in July.
Looking back, the morning of the tournament was a blur. I remember Kathleen and Tom made us a great breakfast. I remember thinking how lucky I was to have such great hosts and such awesome teammates. I remember re-packing Phil’s car and traveling into the city. I remember arriving and greeting our competitors. They welcomed us with open arms, smiles, and friendship. That is what kubb offers that no other sport I have been apart of can…a feeling of family. We all traveled from near and far to play on a frozen lake, far from our vision of what what perfect kubb conditions look like. But this is winter kubb, and nothing is normal.
As we got to our pitches, met the teams in our group, and the start of the tournament approached, things were looking good for The Perfect Storm (our team name). We had met with the Skubby Dudes (from the St. Paul Kubb Society) and decided we would play each other last in group play. This would hopefully mean the first two games would be nice warm-ups and then we would play for the group champion. As the tournament started, our plan was playing out perfectly. We won our first two matches 2-0 and set up a showdown with the Skubby Dudes (who were also 2-0) to determine who would advance to the championship bracket and who would head to the Lilla Loppet. Our assigned roles were working well, there wasn’t an areas in our games that were showing concern, and we were starting to gel well as a team.
As I was stating earlier, this tournament is set up differently than most others. The 16 group winners advance to the championship bracket to determine the overall champions, and then everyone else plays in a bigger tournament in a best-of-one format for another championship that they call the Lilla Loppet. Our next match would determine who went to the championship bracket and who would be regulated to competing in the Lilla Loppet. I find it funny that the shots that stick out in my memory the longest, are the ones that I wish I could have over. Talking with my teammates, I know that’s true for them too. In that respect, I know all three of us are still remembering our group championship game. It’s the story of a slow start combined with playing a team riding a hot streak. They won 2 games to 0, and while we fought hard at times, it was a decisive victory for them. They couldn’t miss a shot and we couldn’t buy an eight meter hit. Combine that with a couple punishment kubbs and too many batons to clear the groups, and you have a recipe for competing in the Lilla Loppet instead of playing on the big stage. I do not want to take anything away from the Skubby Dudes, as they were the better team, but we didn’t play up to our own expectations. Skubby Dudes went on to finish 4th overall, playing in a great contest with JP Larson’s Chaska Kubb Club team for 3rd place. I was proud to say they were the team that knocked us out.
Falling short of expectations is not a whole lot of fun and I think all three us knew we could have played better. But the day was not over, we had a bye in the Lilla Loppet, and we still had a chance to win medals. The rest of the day would be best-of-one matches, meaning one more game where we have a slow start would be the end of our day. I spent the first round of our bye making sure that if we lost again, it would not be because of me. I’m not an eight meters guy. That role has always gone to someone else on my teams, but I saw what happens when a good team goes cold at eight meters.
The next few rounds better represented who all three of us are as players. We didn’t stay with our given roles, we were flexible, played with a chip on our shoulders, and did what was necessary to move on to the next round. As the light of the day began to fade, we looked at the Lilla Loppet bracket and our name was in the finals. Now the only question became, who would we play? There were many good teams on the other side of the bracket and we knew whoever it was, it would be a battle. Would it be Bridget Long’s team that made it through to the finals? Maybe Micah’s team, who finished second overall in the whole tournament last year? Nope, instead Lumber Tumblers beat both of them and would be our opponents in the finals. I had become very familiar with this team during the course of the day. Between our contests there was a 45 minute break, where the other side of the bracket played their games and we got a chance to watch. I would go and cheer on the Lumber Tumblers because Christopher Jones, a founding member of Kalamazoo Kubb, was on that team. Much to my amazement, there was two Kalamazoo Kubb members playing AGAINST each other in the finals of the Lilla Loppet. In fact, everyone in the finals match had a Michigan connection. Every player was born or lived much of their lives in the Great Lakes State.
As darkness quickly approached, we began our best-of-one game showdown for the Lilla Loppet Frostbeard Trophy. As Ryan, Phil, and myself learned earlier, you cannot have a slow start and expect to win. Yet, we once again, we failed to capitalize early in the game. Our competition did not start slow and was looking for an early victory. It was looking so bad early, that the joke was Eric Goplin didn’t need to worry about getting a lantern over to our match because it would be finished before he got back. I’m proud to say, we needed that lantern.
While you could not of had a worse start, we ended up playing for over an hour and half to finish our one game. The Perfect Storm threw out our roles, who was responsible for what shots, and threw off the weight of expectations. It was just three friends playing kubb, not ready to admit defeat, never ready for the day to end. As we fought back, it made me realize how much I love to play kubb. While there is another team on the other side of the pitch, you are only really playing yourself. You are playing your doubts, your limitations, and your expectations. In the end, we lost. We lost with nine kubbs in play. We lost after the other team missed a king shot. We lost after we left an advantage line. We lost after I realized how much further I needed to take my game. Lumber Tumblers played one hell of a game, took advantage of our slow start, and stayed out ahead of us the whole time. They won the gold, they were the better team. We won the silver and that was just fine with us. I fell asleep that night with memories of the shots I missed, the thoughts of what could have been, but also knowing how much I grew this weekend. I fell asleep grateful for my teammates, who believed enough in me to ask me to play on their team. I fell asleep grateful for our hosts, Kathy and Tom, who made us feel so welcomed. I fell asleep grateful and ready for whatever is next.
In the week since I came back from Loppet, I’ve practice kubb more than ever before. Before I had a desire to compete and to see where I stack up. Now, I have a desire to win. I am done feeling like I can’t beat tough teams. I’m done wondering where I stack up. I now realize my toughest competition is the man staring at me in the mirror every morning. I have a few tournaments before Nationals and I won’t settle. I’m still not the best player in all phases of the game, but that reminds me of a quote Phil shared with me on our journey. “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours.” April 30th seems like a long way off, but the next tournament always comes up faster than you think. I will be ready. I will be determined. I believe I will win. Only I stand in my way.