BOW -- Members of a New Hampshire National Guard unit returning from a year of active duty in Iraq were looking for a way to stay connected as they adjusted to life after combat.
They chose hurling, the Irish sport most had only seen briefly during refueling stops in Ireland on the way to and from Iraq. They formed the Barley House Wolves, a club that has improved remarkably since its founding in 2006 by a group of absolute beginners.
“There's nothing like getting out on an athletic field and blowing off some steam,” Wolves captain Ray Valas said. “I can tell you personally, when you come back from a deployment, you need to blow off some steam. This was a healthy way to do it.”
What is hurling? It looks a little like trying to play lacrosse with something resembling a field hockey stick with two flat sides, called a hurley.
That's a very loose description for a complicated game, which has been played for thousands of years in Ireland but is little known outside Irish communities in the United States.
“It's not really like anything else that you can compete and play in. It's not like a softball league,” said Rob Burnham, a Manchester native who joined the club in 2008. “It takes quite a bit of dedication and commitment.”
The Wolves have pushed themselves into contenders in the small circle of American hurling clubs. They will play a club from Portland, Maine, next weekend in a regional final in Canton, Mass. The winner advances to the national tournament in Philadelphia over Labor Day weekend.
A national title would secure a promotion to the next level of competition within the North American Gaelic Athletic Association, a significant milestone considering just how new to the sport the Wolves are. It's been only a half-dozen years since they first picked up a hurley and tried to mimic what they had seen on video clips from television or on the Internet.
“At the time, it didn't seem that bad,” said Valas, a lieutenant colonel in the New Hampshire National Guard and the company commander of the unit that served in Iraq. “Looking back, knowing what I know now ... wow, was it terrible. It was nowhere near hurling. You couldn't even really call it hurling, what we were doing that first practice. It was just a group of American guys giving it their best without really knowing.”
Wolves coach Alan Mangan, an Irishman from Cork who recently moved from Boston to Exeter, marvels at what he has seen so far from the Barley House Wolves.
“It's unbelievable. The first night I was here, I couldn't believe the amount of guys that were here,” Mangan said. “Every one of them has really taken off and really gotten into the game.”
Endurance and discipline
The club started small, with just the returning members of C Company 3-172nd Infantry, but has expanded over the years with other military personnel or people who just heard about the Wolves and wanted to give hurling a shot. There are now enough members for three teams within the club. The top players represent the Wolves on the traveling team, which takes on other clubs from across the country. The Wolves compete as part of the Boston Gaelic Athletic Association and are the defending Northeast Division Junior C champions. The next level up is Junior B, where the Wolves hope to be competing next year.
They've already come a long way in six years, starting with absolutely no experience, but developing hurling skills through intense work, making the sport a natural fit for soldiers who have endured the rigors of basic training and the structured life of the military. The Wolves always expect to have more endurance and be more disciplined than their opponents.
Practices are Tuesdays and Thursdays, and anybody hoping to get on the pitch (or field, in layman's terms) during a match had better be there, rain, snow or sweltering heat. These are men who survived combat and aren't about to flinch because of the weather.
How difficult is the sport?
Imagine placing a baseball or golf ball on something with roughly the surface area of a ping pong paddle and attempting to keep it balanced while running at full speed. Now, stop and pivot while keeping control of the ball — called a sliotar — before a defender's stick or hurley — knocks it away.
Players can grab the ball with a hand and carry it, but only for four steps before having to give it a whack forward via either pass or shot. Balls through the uprights are worth a point, and shots that reach the back of the goal are worth three.
It's a lot easier to loft a high, arcing ball through a set of football uprights than it is to successfully get one to the back of the net, where a goalkeeper and any other player in the vicinity stand tall and don't flinch at whatever comes their way. The ball is hard and unforgiving, leaving at the very least a bruise, if not a welt or a cut. The hardwood hurleys also can inflict some damage. The rules say no checking, but the game is plenty physical, and the only visible protective equipment are the helmets with metal guards that cover the face.
The players don't even wear gloves, inviting bashed or broken fingers from a wayward hurley.
“I've had people tell me I'm crazy,” Valas said after playing an intraclub match on a hot, muggy night outside Concord.
Roots in Ireland
Valas said the decision to try hurling came from the National Guard company's deployment to Iraq. The flights going over and coming home both made a refueling stop in Ireland, where the soldiers had time for a quick Guinness while catching a little bit of an unusual sport on TV. When they came home, the soldiers tossed around ideas on how to keep in touch and ended up forming the Wolves.
“We wanted it to be something healthy, something active — not just getting together at a bar,” Valas said. “Someone said, 'What's that thing we saw on the TV when we were going through Ireland? Let's give that a go.'”
The learning was slow, but the former soldiers worked at it and continued to improve. In 2010, the club made a trip back to Ireland to get a first-hand look at the game from the experts. The trip included a match against an Irish military club, which showed the novice Americans they still had much to learn.
“That was a lesson,” Valas said. “They did not take it easy on us — at all — and we wouldn't have had it any other way.”
Valas said it was a turning point for the Wolves, who became more serious and intense.
“This is the national sport of another country. You have to respect that. You have to honor that,” Valas said. “We've really tried to embrace and learn the true roots of the sport.”
Valas said 14 members of the infantry company were wounded during the year in Iraq, but there were no fatalities. In bringing home everybody who had made the trip the year before, Valas said, all knew how fortunate they were and didn't want the company to grow apart.
Although the company didn't lose anybody in combat, the hurling club did lose a member in February when 22-year-old Kevin Castelot of Bedford died of a sudden illness. The Wolves created the Castelot Memorial Cup in his honor, and the trophy went to the winner of the intraclub championship earlier this month.
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Doug Alden may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.