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Jason Gisoo Kim
Phil Larivière

In the winter of 2021, I sat down with Angelo Destounis to talk about his story and the history of the Ringleaders. During our conversation, one statement stood out as a pinnacle to Canadian football identity: “We’re Canadian, the cold is our reality.” An awareness that has set the foundations for Frostbite Cup: an annual football tournament where the beautiful game is played in the snow. A competition that has taken the Ringleaders from Montreal to Nova Scotia and eventually to Iceland. In the winter of 2023, I would find myself freezing on the sidelines in the middle of TD Place, the home of Atletico Ottawa. This would be my introduction to the fabled Frostbite Cup.

On the morning of February 18th, I pulled up to, and was immediately impressed by TD Place. The North Stand stood tall and proud while the South Stand was marked with the names of CFL legends. Speaking of legends, this stadium hosted David Bowie, AC/DC, Guns n’ Roses and the Rolling Stones. Beast of Burden, great tune. I made my way to the pitch through the hockey arena in the North Stand. As I walked closer, I can see the Capital City Supporters Group at the opposite end of the pitch chanting in full force. I immediately thought to myself, “they really took it to another level this year.”

The pitch had been divided into three smaller pitches, with three games being played simultaneously. The snow had only been cleared on the sidelines of the pitch. However, the path from the tunnel out to the pitch had not been cleared. Rather, a trench in the snow had been created from a single shovel. I immediately realized that without proper footwear, frostbite was a reality. Each game consisted of fifteen-minute halves. Nonetheless, people played and hustled for each pass, sprint and shot. Teams are divided randomly and are assigned a colour. Baby blue, yellow, green, purple, white, and blue.

Among the vibrant colours of the custom-made Ringleader pinnies, I spotted Aaron Hooper on the sidelines. Wearing a yellow pinny with the five-year Canadian Premier League anniversary logo on the top right; with the words <<Même pas peur>> (Not even scared) adorned on the chest. If there was anyone that is able to make your Ottawa footy experience memorable, it is Aaron. Jovial, positive and uplifting. He is the type of person that exhibits why one falls in love with football. A perfect match with the Ringleaders.

I asked Aaron why he wasn’t participating, and he informed me of a previous knee injury that he had aggravated while playing in the Frostbite Cup. Nonetheless, he took up the role of manager while sipping on tea. Aaron would later take up the role of goalkeeper, making clutch saves and diving into the snow for every ball. Despite his injury, I can tell he refuses to not play, above all, refusing to lose. While in nets, I commented to Aaron “It’s exhausting to run in the snow. I am tired for you guys. It looks like you’re running on sand. “The difficulty is 15/10. This should be a livestream, like Pique’s Liga del Rey” he says. A seven-a-side soccer competition created by Gerard Pique that is streamed on social media. Perhaps created to also get his mind off Shakira. Despite the exhaustion and cold, I can tell Aaron was having the time of his life. Moreover, he is sharing this moment with his teammates from Nine Stars FC.

As the snow continued to fall, I noticed a full media team had been present, filming and documenting the tournament as it unfolded. Meanwhile, Angelo could be seen walking up and down the pitch making sure the games were running smoothly. He was a man of numerous responsibilities. Angelo was the organizer, referee, administrator, and coordinator. He was constantly talking to team captains, players, the media team, Atlético Ottawa and CPL representatives. Busy man, but always kept a smile and continuous banter with the players. I asked Angelo how he was feeling about the event so far, he replied: “I am relieved that it is finally happening.” He is a man on a mission to deliver a beautiful experience. That experience was upped with the presence of Frostbite trophy. An ice sculpture about two feet tall was carried by Angelo and Suguru Kanbayashi from the Canadian Ice Carver’s society. As the trophy was unveiled to all the contestants, the prize becomes real. So real, that for the final match both lined up and teams walked out to the Champions League anthem.

For a moment, it was as if everyone’s childhood returned. Pretending to play in a Champions League final while blissfully enjoying themselves in the snow. The thirty-minute game went into extra time. In which it had gone to penalties à la MLS 90’s style.  The taker dribbles towards the keeper and attempts to score. Unfortunately, no one was able to score since dribbling on snow is near impossible. As a result, the penalties shifted to a crossbar challenge in which no one succeeded. This already hilarious and lighthearted final was decided on a tested and true format. A game of true skill and luck: rock, paper, scissors. Captain of Baby blue, Chris Abbey, a Parisian native participating in his first Frostbite Cup, won the decisive moment. Glory had been bestowed to Baby blue. When I asked Chris about his experience, he replied with: “It’s cold, but this is so fun and unique. I’m just happy to be here and having a fun time.” Celebratory pictures were taken with the cup and everyone promptly headed indoors. Good timing, at this point I lost sensation in my toes. Wearing gore-tex hiking shoes was a horrible idea.

Throughout the event, I spotted Phil Larivière shooting the tournament. While shooting, I can tell he wanted to play. As such, we became the observers that wanted to play but admired the hustle each player displayed. I spent the majority of the tournament chatting with Phil. Despite not being able to play, he expressed how glad he was that Ottawa was hosting the Frostbite Cup. Phil expressed events like the Frostbite cup are important for Ottawa. A genuine event that goes against Ottawa’s reputation as a “boring” city. As a local, Phil wanted to demonstrate what Ottawa has to offer.  To encourage people to look past what is deemed boring and to explore Ottawa from the perspective of a local. Phil’s skill as a shooter demonstrated that passion.

In terms of football, the Canadian capital seems to be overlooked as Montréal and Toronto’s influence casts a shadow over Ottawa. People like Aaron Hooper and Phil Larivière are demonstrations of Ottawa’s growing football culture. People who wish to be in the same conversation alongside Montréal and Toronto. The Frostbite Cup presents a fun competition and an opportunity for locals to demonstrate what Ottawa has to offer. To have the cup played in TD Place stadium in the historic Lansdowne Park is a major statement. Maybe it’s time for us, in particular Montréalers, to put some respect on Ottawa’s name.

This is Angelo Destounis’ goal with Ringleaders and the Frostbite Cup. To bring passionate individuals together and to celebrate the beautiful game. Moreover, Frostbite Cup gave local Ottawans a chance to share their love of the game. This annual winter cup is no longer about soccer players wanting to play in the snow. It has transformed into an event of representation and expression. To shine light on soccer communities outside of Montreal and to do so in true Canadian fashion, in the snow. Above all, it brings people together. They say trauma binds people, I think the cold acts as that adhesive among strangers who would share a memorable moment for the rest of their lives. Can the cold be traumatic? Yes. But it is what you do with it that matters.

The Frostbite Cup is a demonstration of a pure grassroots football. Despite the weather, people travelled and gathered in the frigid Ottawa winter, only to play a friendly football tournament. “Only” is reductive. But this is really a demonstration of Canadian football people. Cold is a factor, not a deterrent. Whether on a rainy night at Stoke or a snowy night in Edmonton, football is a passion that must and will be expressed.

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