It's becoming a strangely common site on the snow-covered riverbank in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan—nine guys, mostly with long hair, dressed head to toe in Canadian flag onesies whipping snowballs at each other.
Usually, I'd jump to the conclusion that it's a group of drunk 20-something-year olds taking advantage of the unseasonably warm temperatures of the prairie province. But they are surprisingly sober, and are doggedly training to take the crown in the upcoming Yukigassen World Championship in Japan.
Yukigassen is professional snowball fighting. The sport's name comes from the Japanese words for snow (yuki) and battle (kassen). It was invented in Hokkaido, Japan, in the late 1980s with the first tournament being held in 1989.
Although other countries including Finland, Norway, Russia, and Thailand have been competing on a global scale, Japan has dominated for nearly 30 years. More than 170 teams competed in 2015, but Japan continued to hold onto its world title. Team Canada captain Nathan Thoen credits much of Japan's success to the fact that the team is often made up of professional baseball players, who participate during their offseason.
Canada didn't start it's own Yukigassen organization until 2011 and Thoen and the Saskatchewan boys were the first to win the Team Canada title. Being students with little income, however, meant that the world championship was out of their reach. A few years later, and maybe a little wiser, the group is finally going to the 28th annual Showa Shinzan International Yukigassen World Championship.
Through a kickstarter campaign, some sponsorship, and a bit of cash from their own pockets, they are on their way to a mountain base across the world to show why Canada deserves the snow warrior title on Feb. 20. But before all that can happen, they have to do the squats, dives, and faceplants in Victoria Park in Saskatoon. That's where I find them.
Taking a quick breather during practice. —Photo by Daily VICE
The team consists of Thoen, his brother Quinten and Anthony, Dr. Tyler Maltman, David Thomson, Reid Maltman, Chris Dziki, Chad Reynolds, and Landon Johnson.
"It feels like an eternity sometimes when you are out there because it's so intense and these balls are flying so fast, and you don't really know what's going on," Nathan said, taking a break from training to make some new Yukigassen-approved snowballs. "You are trying to get ammunition, trying to make sure your team is OK, trying to make sure their team isn't coming for your flag. It's like a lot going on, a lot going on the whole time and it seems longer than three minutes."
It looks a bit like chaos, a playground battle gone horribly wrong. Wearing helmets, goggles, and their signature onesies, the team dives through a Chinese shrine, over a memorial plaque, and into each other screaming chants you'd likely hear in a high school movie and at one point actually breaking out the one from the Mighty Ducks movies.
Nathan swears that there is strategy.
"You need your defence guys rolling balls up to you to make sure you have ammunition because you can't just be scooping them up off the ground making it because they are all pre-pressed," he tells me.
"It's about remembering 'OK, I have enough snowballs. OK, I'm rolling balls up to these guys,' and then trying to take out the opponents, trying to take out the other teams."
Proper, pro-made snowballs. —Photo by Daily VICE
Yukigassen, which has similar rules to dodgeball, consists of a trio of three-minute rounds. There are three ways to actually win the round.
The first way to win a round is to hit all of the opponents and get them out. That's an instant win.
The second way is to end the three minutes with more players than the other team. Thoen said that can be "dangerous" because it means that teams will do whatever they can to take out more of your players.
The final way is to steal the opponent's flag, which is located in the back of the team's territory.
"In Japan, that rarely happens because these guys are so precise," Nathan said. "But in Canada when we play, there are tons of those flag grabs just because people get disorganized, they run through all their snowballs. You kind of wear them down a bit and you can just sprint for the flag."
My body hurts just watching them train, but injuries are a real concern. Team Canada is bringing its own doctor along to treat any wounds along the way. Dr. Tyler Maltman (also decked out in a onesie but with a stethoscope around his neck) said that they are preparing for a "bloodbath." He's been involved with the team from the beginning and has seen everything from broken bones to lost teeth. He will have a suture kit on the sidelines, a smart but not an altogether reassuring plan.
The team, confident it will succeed from years of practice throwing snowballs in Canada's cold climate, has also partnered with a production company to make a web series about the journey, which they plan to make into a feature-length documentary at the end.
Make Canada proud. —Photo by Daily VICE
The Saskatchewan boys will be joined at the tournament by fellow Canucks, the Canadian Snowbattlers from Edmonton. The Snowbattlers are actually the most recent Canadian team to qualify for the worlds, with Team Canada being the first. Since there isn't much of a league in Canada, both teams are going, they say without animosity. Team Canada said what is most important is that this country takes the title, and unseats the unconquerable Japanese teams.
Team Canada certainly knows how to build the production and pump up the fan base, but after this practice I have no idea if these guys actually know how to play.