A group of former Junior B lacrosse teammates, as well as current and former club executives, gathered along with the family of Mike Jones at the Virgil arenas last weekend to honour the late lacrosse booster.
The Thunderhawks also memorialized the beloved longtime executive of the club by renaming last weekend’s 39th annual minor lacrosse tournament in his name.
Jones, who grew up in Queenston and played Junior B lacrosse with the Niagara Kinsmen Warriors, precursors to the Thunderhawks, lost a 16-month battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, in January.
“This weekend has brought back so many memories,” said Jones’ wife, Anne Andres-Jones. “And my grandson was playing in the tournament for the very first time, with our son Eryn coaching him. Mike would have been so proud. The support of family and friends this weekend has been amazing.”
Andres-Jones became a bit teary-eyed while considering that the Thunderhawks Tournament will be known as the Mike Jones Memorial going forward.
“It’s a really fitting tribute to the work Mike put in, mostly behind the scenes,” she acknowledged. “He did all the jobs no one else really wanted to do, but that was Mike. It was really important to him that the Junior B team be a community team, so that kids would have a chance to play.”
In December, 2021, the Thunderhawks organization announced the cancellation of its Junior B program. The closure of the border to the U.S. during COVID made it impossible for members of the Tuscarora Indian Reserve, located across the Queenston-Lewiston bridge in New York state, to play in NOTL. They had become invaluable contributors to the success of Thunderhawks teams over many years.
Andy Boldt pushed on in 2022 with an intermediate team that went undefeated en route to an Ontario championship, but that team isn’t running for 2023.
“He was really troubled by that,” said Anne of the cancellation of the Junior B program. “He persevered, and contacted Randy Crysler, who had been a past coach and was instrumental with getting the Tuscarora boys over here. He really tried to save the team from folding.”
Mike’s younger brother Dave was surprised, but found it appropriate that the club decided to honour Mike.
“His work was behind the scenes,” Dave told The Local. “People didn’t know what he did. His dedication was amazing. I think this is very fitting. And all the people that came, it was like a high school reunion.”
Three years younger than Mike, Dave remembered having a chance to play a few Junior B games with his big brother.
“He was a goalie,” laughed Dave, “and I tried my hardest to score on him in practice every time. We grew up along the Parkway in Queenston where there were so many boys. Mike constantly gave me inspiration to try to beat him. And I still have the scars to prove it.”
Family and friends packed the lobby at the Centennial Arena, where a display case borrowed from the Ontario Lacrosse Hall of Fame was on display. Featuring a jersey once worn by Jojie Engemann, whose parents Joe and Rose were instrumental in the start of the program, it also includes a tribute to Jones. Mike had previously been honoured with the Spirit of Lacrosse print for his 40 years of service to the Ontario Lacrosse Association.
Former club executive member Ken Slingerland, who first met Mike at the park 60 years ago, before either arena had been built, spoke of his longtime friend.
“We played together for 13 years,” Slingerland said. “We had some terrible years, but we persevered, kept coming back and getting better. He was so dedicated, he had this passion for the game. When his job (as an accountant) took him out west, he started coaching there, too. He had a full career of lacrosse for sure.”
Slingerland and other former teammates made a point to visit Jones and the family while he was struggling with his disease.
“It wasn’t easy to do during COVID,” he remembered. “But we would gather together to sit on the veranda with him and Anne. He was in pretty good spirits right up to the end.”
Ed McIlroy, who played with Mike every second year growing up, was master of ceremonies at the event. Al Janzen spoke about Mike’s hard work in various roles, including as president and treasurer, with the Junior B club through the years.
Current Thunderhawks president Chris Williams and vice-president Jay Thorimbert then presented Anne and the family with a plaque and flowers.
Thorimbert’s Under-11 team was one of three Thunderhawks squads playing in last weekend’s 22-team tournament. His squad came from behind to knock off the Centre Wellington Riverhawks 8-7 in Sunday’s semi-final game and went on to a thrilling 7-5 win over the Kitchener Kodiaks to capture the tournament title in their age group.
“It’s huge for us to win this first Mike Jones tournament,” said Thorimbert, who plays for the New York Riptide of the National Lacrosse League. “He was there when I started playing Junior B. These kids don’t really know the story, but to win the first one ever at home is amazing.”
Tournament convener Lisa Alfarano told The Local that registration numbers for some of the younger age groups was much larger than previous seasons.
“The idea of bringing back the Junior B team has come up a couple of times in board meetings,” she said. “Considering the turnout we had this year in U9, where we had to make two teams this year, the U7s, and our development kids, it could potentially be a possibility in a few years.”
“I was enthused to find out how many of the youngest kids are playing in the organization,” Slingerland said. “They told me they had 35 paperweights playing. I think our Junior B will come back in time. There’s was a tradition here since 1969, and it was one of the strongest franchises in the province. I’m sure it will be back some day.”
Jones would have been happy to hear about that possibility.