Blake Mahovic and his fellow Axemen Rugby Club members have never prioritized athletic excellence at all costs.
That’s not to say they’re lackadaisical in their approach to sport. The Axemen are passionate about what they do, which is reflected in their work ethic at practice. A stunning 24-21 playoff upset of heavily-favoured Burnaby Lake last April proved that the Squamish-based club can compete with top talent—but at the end of the day, accessibility trumps accolades.
That’s why team leaders chose to drop back down into BC Rugby’s Division 2 in spite of a confidence and character-building Division 1 experience in 2022-23.
A step back
The Axemen would love to keep playing against some of British Columbia's top squads...but not if that means excluding some of its membership.
“Travel commitments for the first division took us to Vancouver Island and the interior quite a lot,” Mahovic explained. “We weren't able to offer rugby to as many people because they weren't able to make those travel commitments, so we really took a step back. We know we can compete in [Division 1], but…our ethos as a club is to get more people involved in our community.”
A downgrade in competition proved the best way to achieve that goal. Division 2 teams need only play in Squamish and the Lower Mainland, whereas the Axemen’s schedule last season included three or four overnight trips—a hefty amount of mileage for an amateur organization that only practices once a week. Plus, the team is familiar with second-division success, having won a May 2022 title over Surrey.
The Axemen have at times been getting up to 50 players at practice, which is unheard of compared to previous years. Its Division 2 squad boasts an undefeated season as of this writing, while the Division 3 boys are also having one of their best campaigns to date with wins over Capilano and Scribes RFC.
Furthermore, Mahovic has again been named to Team Canada’s rugby league roster alongside teammates Josh Michalik and Gus Murphy. They will suit up for a March 1 exhibition game in Las Vegas against the USA Hawks.
The newly-relaunched Axemen women’s branch has also grown at a rapid pace, combining with the Vancouver Rowers to jump into action sooner than expected. Coached by former Abbotsford RFC member Lauren Arthur, the Axes and Oars downed Chilliwack 37-5 last November for their first-ever victory.
Come for the skiing, stay for the rugby
Not everything has gone to plan, however.
The 2023 closure of Quest University forced Axemen leaders to seek an alternative to training on the now-shuttered campus. Things got worse when the club found itself unable to book time at Brennan Park Recreation Centre for any of its men’s, women’s or youth programs.
“There has been no solution. We’re facing the same problems that we always have,” said Mahovic. “The way that it's set up right now—not to get into too many technicalities—is that a single user group, if they meet a certain criteria, can book the entire Brennan Park facility for all the hours. There are definitely other small sports organizations in the same boat as us, being unable to secure time.
“Ultimately, it comes down to asking districts and municipalities to take a look at their policies, which are forty years old now and designed for a completely different ecosystem, and asking: are they equitable?”
The District of Squamish told the Squamish Chief last September that it hopes to address some of these issues in 2024.
In the meantime, the Axemen are doing what they can to keep everyone together. The club pays for gym classes for all its adult members—women and men alike have an opportunity to join group sessions in Whistler and Squamish. Various social events, recreational touch rugby games and an annual potluck also go a long way towards fostering unit cohesion.
It’s not just about recruitment, either. The Axemen strive to be contributing members of their community, whether it’s donating potluck food to the Squamish Helping Hands Society or volunteering for various non-profit organizations throughout the Sea to Sky area.
“The club acts as a huge social safety net for a bunch of our members, so that’s something we’ve been really conscious about,” explained Mahovic. “A lot of people came here to ski, but they stayed for rugby, which to me is exactly what amateur sport should be: there's a place for everyone and everyone feels included. It doesn't matter how long you've been playing, or who you are, or what your background is.
“We have no real interest in becoming the best rugby team in B.C., but we are really interested in becoming a pillar of the community.”
The Axemen returned to competitive play at January’s end and will continue until May, with plenty of home games in Squamish on the schedule. Learn more at https://www.axemenrugbyclub.com