Brendan Szabo Didn't Have to Go Far to Get a Taste of His Heritage
By Stephen Stamp
The 20-year-old native of Surrey, BC says that the Langley Events Centre, where the games were played when Szabo represented Ireland at the World Lacrosse 2019 World Indoor Lacrosse Championship last September, is only about a 20-minute drive from the house where he lives with his parents.
That made it easy for family members to show up en masse for Irish games at the tournament, where they could cheer for Brendan and his brother Patrick, along with cousin Aidan Miller, all of whom helped Ireland to an 11th place finish.
[Left to Right: Aidan Miller, Patrick Szabo, Brendan Szabo]
Speaking of a taste of heritage, Miller's mother Moe hosted a barbecue for the team and fans during the tournament. Upwards of 40 people attended the gathering, decorated with plenty of Irish touches, according to Szabo's mother and Moe's sister, Alison Parker-Szabo.
Alison's mother was born in Ireland, and although Alison was born just outside of London, England, Alison says she feels “more of a connection to Ireland in many ways,” so she encouraged her sons to pursue Irish passports and citizenship rather than English.
Brendan was on board, completed the paperwork and headed to Ireland for men's indoor national team tryouts in 2018, the first time he'd been back to the country since the whole family headed over for a wedding when he was four.
“We stayed there for an extra week, went out to Cliffs of Moher, explored Dublin a lot, went on a couple of touristy things,” Szabo says. “It was cool. I'd love to go back, too.”
The impetus to get his passport and pursue a spot on the Irish team came in Szabo's earlier taste of international lacrosse competition. He won back-to-back gold medals with Canada at the IIJL World Junior Lacrosse Championship in 2018 (Saskatoon) and 2019 (Mississauga). His head coach for Canada, Jeff Dowling, is also the head coach of Ireland's national team, so there was a natural connection.
The World Juniors were excellent experiences on a personal level, Szabo says.
[Left to Right: Brendan Szabo, Jeff Dowling - Head Coach 2018 - 2019 WJLC Canada & Head Coach 2019 WILC Ireland, Patrick Szabo]
“It was great, coming together with kids across the country, playing a sport we all love and we're all competitive, everyone had fun. It was a great way to come together and meet new people, experience new things outside your comfort zone.”
He also got a lot out of it on the lacrosse side, and he saw the difference when he returned for his second World Juniors. “That was a big growth area in my game over the year,” he emphasizes, “being more confident and being able to use my strengths.”
One of his chief strengths is his speed, which played a big role in the play that he talked about when asked for some of his most memorable moments over the three tournaments.
“I'd have to go back to the first year, the goal I scored,” Szabo says. “We were up 10-5 [in the gold medal game], Iroquois goes on a 4-goal run so it's 10-9. Then [goalie] Brody Harris gave me a perfect breakout pass. I scored on a breakaway and that ended up being, I guess technically it counts as the game-winner [in the 15-10 final]. Probably one of the biggest goals of my career, I'm pretty proud of it.”
What Szabo didn't mention, but his mother fondly recalled, was that that goal was one of three he scored in the game. While Szabo's father, Paul, was at the tournament in Saskatoon, Alison wasn't able to make that trip so she was watching the live streams from home.
“It was pretty exciting to see him wear the Canada uniform,” Alison says. Sporting the maple leaf is a bit of family heritage as well, since Paul played for Canada's rugby team. As Alison points out, now they both have Baron rings honouring representing the country, although Brendan has two to his father's one, she adds with a laugh.
Brendan Szabo enjoyed playing with lots of new friends for Canada, but on the critical goal he recalls, familiarity paid off. He and Harris were teammates with the Delta Islanders of the British Columbia Junior A Lacrosse League (BCJALL), and on the game winner he mostly let his instincts take over.
“There's not a lot of thought in those moments,” he explains. “I practice with Brody on breakout passes all the time, so I knew the pass was going to be on point. Then just coming down and scoring. I can't really remember my thoughts from back then, I'd say it's more just instinct in that moment in time.”
While his personal confidence being higher and winning another gold medal are great memories from the 2019 WJLC in Mississauga, Szabo also enjoyed the bigger field. The championship grew from three teams, Iroquois and United States being the others in 2018, to six a year later.
“The second year I thought it was really cool to come in and meet some of the Australian guys, guys from Israel and Poland,” Szabo says. “It was pretty cool to actually play against guys out of our continent.”
Getting the chance to play with Junior A teammate Harris at the World Juniors was fun, but Szabo got the really cool opportunity to play with someone even more familiar for Ireland. Patrick Szabo is three years older, so the brothers didn't get to play together in minor lacrosse.
And while they didn't get the chance to play together much other than some high school field lacrosse, Brendan found that they meshed quite well when they were on the floor together playing defence for Ireland.
“Watching him over the years, I felt like I already knew what he would do in certain situations, so the chemistry was there for the most part, came more quickly than it would with most new teammates,” Brendan explains.
Unfortunately, the brothers' chance to play together was cut short when Patrick suffered a tournament-ending injury in Ireland's fourth game. It was a still a great experience, though.
Brendan learned a lot from his chance to play against men, as well. One aspect was the composure that the older players showed.
[Photo: Team Ireland - World Lacrosse 2019 World Indoor Lacrosse Championship, Langley, BC]
“It really made game mature more, just for the fact that in Junior you're going to have a lot of kids who are hotter heads, really aggressive,” he says. “Playing against men, they're not going to get that hot-headed. That's what I thought, at least. Even the coaches had to pull me aside and say calm down a little bit.”
The second thing Szabo took from the tournament regarded his preparation on the floor.
“Mostly, the big thing I took away was that I need to put more work in,” he says. “Playing for Canada, you see guys that are extremely talented. The same thing, playing senior at the worlds, seeing guys that were just unreal. I've got to see, how can I stop that guy, as a defenceman. That was the big thing, just seeing how much more I can improve and putting that plan into work.”
As a smaller player, 5'11" 175lbs, that work is primarily going into getting stronger, which should make a difference as he moves on to other levels of the game. 2020 was supposed to be Szabo's final season of junior lacrosse, but with it being cancelled because of COVID-19, he'll need to be ready to move on to senior and, he hopes, the professional lacrosse in the coming seasons.
Szabo entered the 2019 National Lacrosse League draft but wasn't selected. That means he'll go back into this year's draft, planned for the middle of September. Applying the lessons that he's learned playing for Canada and Ireland will be big factors in Szabo's favour as he strives for the highest levels of the game.