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A Journey to Be the Best

Written by: Mark Janzen

Photographer: Ryan McCullough

On the south side of Bridge Street, on the western side of the community of Lakefield, Ontario, Lakefield District Public School sits adjacent to the local McDonald's.

Two blocks to the east is the Otonabee River, which curls through the middle of town, flowing south from Katchewanooka Lake and eventually through the city of Peterborough to Rice Lake. Not surprisingly, Bridge Street connects the two sides of Lakefield, traversing the rivers’ waters precisely where a small dam – the Lakefield Generating Station – has operated since 1928.

Across the street from the school is a brick building that houses the Lakefield Herald – a weekly newspaper that, amongst other things, keeps readers up to date on the Lakefield Men’s Horseshoe Club 2017 standings.

The local school on Bridge Street used to be known as Lakefield District Secondary School when it was home to the local high school. In the spring of 2016, the secondary school closed due to low enrollment. This fall, it will reopen as a kindergarten to Grade 8 school.

But for Tyler Ardron, 26, this will always be where things all began. Despite the changes, the brick façade that looks across the street at one of only a few red-roofed homes in town, doesn’t look much different from when Ardron attended – when one of Canada’s greatest rugby players first discovered a rugby ball.

As a Grade 9 student in Lakefield, Ardron was a tall and gangly type, but he was athletic. He played it all, from volleyball and basketball to lacrosse and hockey. He was decent with a stick and a puck, but when his high school basketball coach, Dave Donald, approached Ardron about playing rugby, he discovered the thing that would define his future.

In the spring of his Grade 9 year, Donald tossed Ardron a rugby ball. From watching him on the hardcourt, Donald figured his athleticism would translate well to the rugby pitch.

“He instantly took to it,” Donald says, recalling a very raw rugby talent. “He liked the camaraderie and he naturally picked it up.”

Ardron found it a unique and perfect match for his out-going personality.

“Everything around rugby is what made me fall in love with it,” Ardron says. “It’s very physical on the field, but as soon as you come off, you go and have a meal and sit down and chat with both teams and everyone gets along.”

Once he met rugby, his innate drive and work ethic seemed to do the rest.

The gym inside those brick walls on Bridge Street became a second home. The workout equipment became his early-morning friend.

Nearly two hours before his classmates and teammates would show up to school, Ardron would meet the custodian at the front doors. The tall, gangly one regularly arrived to the gym at 7 a.m., beginning the process of becoming the 6-foot-5, 244-pound specimen who recently signed a two-year contract with the prestigious New Zealand-based Chiefs of Super Rugby fame.   

“That was the difference between Tyler and a lot of other players I coached,” says Donald. “He wanted to get better and was willing to put in the hours to do that.”

After his first season playing the sport – one in which Donald says he “hid him at fullback” – Ardron started to find his way. His size and athleticism got him into most rugby-affiliated doors. His work ethic and coachable personality took him the rest of the way. Just a few months after first picking up a rugby ball, Donald drove Ardron to a tryout for Ontario’s U15 side. It only took a few training sessions for the provincial coaches to become enamoured with Ardron’s potential. When Donald asked the coaches about the possibility of Ardron making the team, he was reassured his young prodigy would be in the squad. “He’s a ‘for sure,’” one of the coaches told Donald.

In a few short months, Ardron became a known commodity on the rugby field.

“He turned into a man over the summer,” Donald says. “I would run with him and tackle and ruck and by Grade 10, I had my hands full with this 15-year-old…and I was 30 at the time.”

...In Lakefield, annually, there's a small window of time when a third absence excuse is offered on the school’s answering machine.

'Press “one” if your son or daughter is sick. Press “two” if your son or daughter is away on holidays' are the standard options on the voicemail. But once a year, 'press “three” if your son or daughter is on the deer hunt' is the most oft-used choice.

So prevalent and important was the annual deer hunt that many kids would miss a week of school to participate.

“During the deer hunt, everyone knew there would be way less students in school,” says Tyler’s father, Trevor Ardron. 

Tyler was typically among the absentees.

He got his hunting license when he was 12, and thus was able to help his family fill the freezer with meat for the winter.

While the “rifle and shotgun” hunting season is shorter window and provides hunters just a few weeks to capture their allotted limit, the bow hunting season is much longer. Of course, it’s also much more challenging and requires a quiver packed with both patience and determination. Even as a youngster, Ardron could check each of those boxes.

As a five-year-old, he joined his father on one particular bow-hunting trip. After striking a deer, the next phase of the hunt began – tracking the deer. But, as night fell, Trevor and Tyler had been unsuccessful. Hours of tracking had proved to be unfruitful.

“As a hunter, you never want to shoot anything and let it stay out there,” Tyler says. “You always have to find it and use it. Nothing is wasted.”

As soon as the sun rose the next morning, Tyler was keen to join his dad and continue the search. Quitting wasn’t an option.“A couple of hours later, we found it and brought it back and my dad did all the butchering,” Tyler says.

That experience offers a glimpse into the person Tyler would become – a man of persistence and patience.

“When you’re hunting, you can sit in the woods for 12 hours a day and see nothing,” Ardron says. “Sometimes things don’t go your way and I think that’s a good life skill. Be patient and relax. There’s a game every weekend and you can only beat yourself up so much if you don’t succeed the first time.”

Photographer: Ron LeBlanc

When Ardron officially announced his signing with the Hamilton-based Chiefs – and in doing so became the first Canadian ever to sign with a Super Rugby team from New Zealand – it was a clear statement to the rugby community. He wants to be the best.

The backrower has joined one of the best teams in arguably the best league in the world in the hottest of rugby hotbeds. In so doing, he also spurned what is quite likely double the salary he could have earned had he remained in Europe, where he had the spent the previous four seasons with the Welsh Pro12 team Ospreys.

“I think getting over and developing as a rugby player was what took priority over all the other factors,” says Ardron, who will be joining a familiar face in Neil Barnes, who was Canada’s forwards coach for seven years until joining the Chiefs after the 2015 Rugby World Cup. “Once I made that decision, the Chiefs were a no-brainer.”

And the rare chance to play in New Zealand – he will compete in the Mitre 10 Cup with the Chiefs-affiliated Bay of Plenty side starting in late-August, before the Super Rugby season starts next February – is all anyone needs to understand the level of Ardron’s game.

“I think it is a testament to him that he’s managed to get a contract in New Zealand,” said Canadian national team coach Mark Anscombe, himself a Kiwi. “The New Zealand rugby union doesn’t encourage teams to go out and get overseas players – I can assure you that – and the fact that (Tyler) has convinced them to give him a contract says a lot. It’s not something many people get the chance to do.”

For Canada, it’s something no one has had the chance to do before Ardron. And if things go well for the history-making No. 8, the benefits could be vast – for both Ardron and a Canadian side that is grasping for positives after recently losing its World Cup qualifying series against the United States.

Following a 28-28 saw-off in the opener of the two-match total points series, Ardron and his Canadian teammates dropped a 52-16 decision in San Diego in the deal-breaker. It could be said that Ardron felt the Californian thrashing doubly, as he was forced to watch the Americans run away with the contest from the sin bin. When Ardron was shown a yellow card, Canada trailed 26-16. Ten minutes later, the USA had bagged three tries and led 47-16.

At the very least, having Ardron garner Super Rugby experience will make him a better player when he returns for national duty. But, perhaps, a successful campaign or two with the Chiefs could inch open the door to the Southern Hemisphere for future Canadian stars.

Photographer: Stephen Foreman

Ardron is well aware of the challenges that Canadian rugby players face. In reality, it’s quite likely that without a top tier pro team in North America, Canada’s quest to climb to the next rung in the rugby world will remain a Sisyphean battle.

“Until we get everyone playing at a top level, we’re not going to be able to compete with the likes of Georgia and Romania,” says Ardron, whose Canadian team went without a try in back-to-back losses this summer to their Eastern European foes.

While Ardron earns the badge for being the first Canadian to play with a New Zealand Super Rugby club, he doesn’t exactly wear it with pride.

“It’s cool, but at the same time, it’s a little disappointing, I suppose,” he says. “It’s going to be exciting (to play in New Zealand), but hopefully there are two or three Canadians signed next time and not just one, so we can get a better program back in Canada.”

That said, Ardron still has hope that elite rugby will find a home in North America sooner than later. “I think the chances are more realistic now than they have ever been,” he says. “I’m pretty optimistic that there will be a good level professional team in North America in my career.” For now, however, Ardron will play the role of Canadian ambassador abroad – an honour he wears with pride. And for Canada, he’s everything the country and rugby community could ask for in a flag-bearer.

Kids growing up in Lakefield don’t aspire to be professional rugby players. With Ardron’s success, maybe they now will, but when he was young, he and his peers knew no such aspirations. Rather, for Ardron, who grew up without a television in the house and with internet that "was dialup, at best,” life was more about fishing, hunting, cliff jumping and having a smile on your face while playing as many sports as possible.

However, a small seed was planted after earning a spot on Canada’s U17 roster and touring Wales and England.

He took to the game in a dedicated fashion and, following his high school playing days, which also included stints with various Ontario provincial teams and the Peterborough Pagans Rugby Club, Ardron earned an opportunity to join the McMaster University Marauders rugby team from Hamilton, Ontario.

Like his early rugby-playing days, when morning meetings with the custodian were commonplace, Ardron took advantage of his opportunities while at McMaster. Academically, he pursued a degree in economics – something he is now just one exam shy of completing – and athletically, he began developing into one of Canada’s best players. Under the guidance of strength and conditioning guru Steve Lidstone, now manager of the high performance centre at Brock University, that “tall and gangly” fellow became a Super Rugby player.

“Tyler didn’t stand out automatically as a ‘can’t miss,” but he had a great attitude,” says Phil White, who was the long-time McMaster coach when Ardron first arrived.

White, still a professor at McMaster, coached the Marauders for 25 years before stepping away in 2013. He’s seen his fair share of quality rugby players come through the program – one that earned seven Ontario championships while White was at the helm – but few compare to Ardron.

“In terms of speed of development, he was 'lights out',” White says. “There was never a question about his commitment. He was also good academically. He had a great attitude and he’s always had that smile. He’s just a genuine guy. He got stuck into the weight-training program and skill development and he made great strides with us.

“He just has that determination and he’s blessed with physical talent. The combination of those two things have led him to where he is today.”

Following his time at McMaster, which included captaining the Marauders to a provincial title in his second year, he earned the chance to play with Canada’s national sevens team. When former Canadian sevens coach Geraint John was leading the charge, Ardron had the chance to compete in several tournaments on the world series and helped his country win a gold medal at the 2011 Pan American Games.

However, ultimately, Ardron had his eyes set on a professional career in the 15s game.

A year after making his 15s national team debut in 2012 against the USA, he signed his first pro contract with Ospreys.

That turned into four years with the Swansea-based Welsh club – a span that included a 2014-15 season in which he started every game and was named the team’s players’ player of the year, but also included a spate of injuries that limited him to 64 appearances. Along the way, he also captained Canada at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

When Lakefield District Secondary School was still in operation, Dave Donald was not only the basketball and rugby coach, but he was also Ardron’s wood shop teacher. Like most things in his life, Tyler took advantage of an opportunity to learn and grow. “He was always doing bigger and better projects than the other students,” Donald recalls.

Of course he was.

When his time with the Chiefs begins, Ardron has plans to attend carpentry school. Every Thursday afternoon, the players are required to pursue an aspect of personal development. Ardron plans to return to his days in Donald’s woodshop and hone his skills.

Of course he does.

When Ardron eventually suits up for the Chiefs in the spring of 2018, he will do so with a team that is littered with All Blacks. As many as 15 players on the current Chiefs roster have earned a cap with the All Blacks.

There’s no doubt it’ll be an experience like none other in his rugby career. But, that’s been Ardron’s entire career – a meteoric rise to rugby prominence.

From Lakefield to Hamilton, Ontario, then to Swansea and now to a vastly different Hamilton, Ardron hasn’t changed. He’s still the same, genuine, hard-working, good ol’ boy who is happy to walk from his edge-of-town home, down Bridge Street to meet the custodian.