Like most Canadian kids Jamie Mackenzie played hockey, lots and lots of hockey, advancing through AAA and playing some Junior.
“But I kind of got burnt out from that six or seven days a week,” he said in a recent interview that as a huge rugby fan was a definite fun one for this writer.
Fortunately Mackenzie had not quite committed exclusively to hockey in his youth.
“I pretty much played everything I could,” he said, adding that is something he believes in for youngsters, to experience many sports which all contribute “to developing yourself as an athlete.”
That included rugby, and that has proven good news for the sport in this country, as Mackenzie has represented Canada since 2010, and is currently a member of the Toronto Arrows of Major League Rugby.
Mackenzie was first introduced to rugby because he naturally tagged along with older brother Phil, who started playing in high school. When Phil and his friends started playing summer club rugby Jamie said his mother encouraged him to try out.
Like brother Phil, Jamie took to the game quickly. He was quickly playing for Ontario on the national stage, and then made Canada’s U17 team which meant traveling abroad.
Looking back, Mackenzie said he thinks he avoided burn out with rugby early on because while playing it at a high level “it was more of a summer sport” so there was not the year-long drag hockey can be.
Brother Phil would head west for university and rugby at the University of Victoria, and not surprisingly Jamie followed.
When it came to taking his rugby to the top level Jamie said all the skills he had picked up playing the various sports as a youth seemed to come together. He said the sport requires thinking on the fly, speed, quickness and of course a willingness to be physical.
“It encompasses everything you need as an athlete,” he said.
While Mackenzie has loved rugby – the 15s game – for years, it is a sport starting to gain broader appeal in Canada.
Having rugby 7s in the Summer Olympics has been a big part of that, giving the sport added media coverage.
The Toronto Wolfpack’s arrival has helped too although that is rugby league with 13-players to a side.
And then there is the MLR, a pro league that was into its third season before COVID-19 forced a cancellation.
The Toronto Arrows joined MLR in 2019, and immediately caught Mackenzie’s attention.
Overall, Mackenzie said the MLR is a huge step for rugby in North America.
“I think it’s so huge,” he said, noting his brother Phil played in the short-lived PRO league that failed after only one season in 2016.
“When the MLR got started, I feel like they did such a good job of getting it off the ground in the right way,” said Jamie.
In Jamie’s case he had been “partially retired” until the launch of the MLR and the Arrows. “It brought me completely back to the sport.”
Having the league and Arrows shows youngsters there is a path to play pro domestically, and that has to be good for the sport.
“I think it opens up so many doors for young players,” said Mackenzie.
The Arrows are already providing a sort of training ground for international play. Thirteen Arrows competed at the 2019 World Cup of Rugby, a field of play Mackenzie admits is a step up.
“After playing South Africa in the World Cup you realize ... It’s a higher level of execution, a higher level of speed,” than what is in the MLR, said Mackenzie, but then again the league is in its infancy too, and South Africa were the Cup winners.
Not surprisingly the World Cup is where Mackenzie turned for his rather obvious career highlight. In 2011 he and brother Phil both suited up and started for Canada in a game in England. Having been born in Scotland, it was a game played in front of many family, and marked a first time brothers have started for Canada.
Will there be more international games for Jamie. At 30, he admits that his hips are feeling the wear and tear of rugby, one requiring surgery when he was only 24, but noted, “as long as I’m feeling good and able to play it’s what I’m going to do.”
I for one as a fan am already looking forward to 2021 for another season of MLR and the Arrows.