Denver’s Mendel proof of hockey-hoops harmony
Griffin Mendel hails from a British Columbia town, Kelowna, whose name is the local First Nations term for “female grizzly.” A public sculpture symbolizing the etymology came along in 1998, the year before Mendel was born.
Some four-to-five hours southwest, there was once an NBA franchise representing the province with the same mascot. But the Vancouver Grizzlies moved south, Deep South, to Memphis the summer after Mendel turned two.
Since then, the NHL’s Canucks have been the market’s only major-league winter team. For a time, Kelowna’s closest NBA team was a two-hour flight and a customs check away in Seattle. Now it’s a three-hour plane ride and an additional state away in Portland.
Yet Mendel, a sophomore defenseman for the Denver Pioneers, has harbored hoops in his heart almost as much as pucks. While the big bear coincidence pervaded the province before his time, his bloodline’s broad horizons stream thicker.
“My uncle played CIS basketball, and my aunt played NCAA,” he noted in a recent interview with Pucks and Recreation. “Everyone in their family is very into basketball, and all play.”
There are some higher-profile examples of this phenomenon in hockey’s native country. One of Mendel’s fellow British Columbians on Denver’s roster — Kohen Olischefski — list hoops as an outside interest. Another one — Jared Lukosevicius — declares Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant his favorite athlete.
Elsewhere, Canadian Olympic forward Sarah Nurse is the cousin of NHL blueliner Darnell Nurse and WNBA point guard Kia Nurse.
Just across the national border, Buffalo Sabres winger Kyle Okposo has sustained an outspoken keenness for cagers. Growing up in Minnesota, the State of Hockey, he twice took a year off the ice and played organized basketball.
Still, the overlap is inevitably sparse. To that point, while five current Pioneer pucksters cite something basketball-related among their favorites, only Mendel was interested in commenting.
Save for the Olympic hoops and WNBA’s summer schedule, the two sports’ seasons go head-to-head at every high-profile level. The games’ respective pace of play and weight of individual impact among superstars could not be starker.
The result is a marketing rivalry that might as well be a lighthearted metaphor for American politics.
“People grow their bias and could not be interested in how the other game is played,” Mendel theorized.
But Mendel, who managed to play both games on a formal basis through sixth grade, has a taste for variety. He will cross the aisles of insulated flooring that pry the rink and the hardwood apart.
“(The appeal of) hockey is the speed of the game,” he said. “People are able to move so much faster on the ice, and it’s impressive how people find time to make plays.”
Conversely, “I like how, in basketball, one player can take over the game and win it for the team, which is uncommon in other team sports.”
Another anomaly is the way one franchise represents a full scope of national pride. That has applied to Canada in the 17 years since the Grizzlies bolted.
Mendel was four when the NBA’s de facto face, LeBron James, was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers. He admits to having ridden the King James bandwagon in his youth.
But the Toronto Raptors have since captured the heart of a natural Canucks hockey fan. They get the home-team treatment for national broadcasts on TSN and Sportsnet. Two years ago, they played a preseason game in the Grizzlies’ old haunts, Rogers Arena. They did so while amplifying their “We The North” tagline.
The Raptors are literally Canada’s team, and everyone acts like it.
“It’s awesome how one team can have the whole nation cheering for them,” Mendel marveled.
Still, he says, “it would be awesome if Seattle or Vancouver got a team.”
Seattle had professional men’s hoops until 2008, when its SuperSonics resurfaced in Oklahoma City as the Thunder. That was when Mendel was finishing second grade, and still had four more years before hockey took sole possession of his extracurricular schedule.
With the NBA’s presence in the Pacific Northwest drained all the more, Mendel’s interest in the “other” winter sport waned for a time.
But then he moved an hour south of home to play Junior A in Penticton. There he billeted with a hoops household. The family was full of NBA fanatics, and their son was continuing his organized exploits on the court.
Since moving on to Denver, Mendel has shown up to support his peers in the Pioneer basketball program. Granted, the 2000-01 women’s team accounts for that sport’s lone NCAA bracket appearance in school history. But a lack of innate rooting interest will not stop Mendel from peeking at March Madness when he can. Even if and when he has his own tournament to prepare for.
And besides his last crack at the NHL Draft and regaining postseason glory for the program he joined after its 2017 national championship, he has more leisurely goals on the Mile High sports scene this winter.
“I wanted to see (the Denver Nuggets) play the Raptors, Cavs or (Golden State) Warriors (last year),” he said. “But never lined up with our schedule. Going to try to go this year.”