By Brendan Shykora
By the time the final whistle had blown on the Ottawa Swans’ 70-22 victory over the Toronto Dingos, former player and coach Matthew Powell could have only assumed that the agenda for the day was through – that it was time to head from the field at the Manotick Polo Club and on to the pub for a post-game celebration.
But following the July 6 match there was one more order of business. Powell’s name was called out during the players’ after-match mingle, and he was invited up in front of the Saturday afternoon crowd. There, Powell was awarded Life Membership by the Ottawa Swans Australian Football Club, in recognition of the seven years he spent with the club and the many hats he wore in helping to build a team that hasn’t been defeated in over a calendar year.
Powell, 42, was on a short visit to Ottawa after having made his way back home to Australia in late 2018. The prestigious award was kept as a surprise – a strategic move on the part of those who know Powell well. As Swans player and current head coach Nathan Strom told the Sportspage, Powell is exceedingly humble, preferring to keep his hard work well out of the spotlight.
“He was kind of embarrassed,” laughed Strom, recalling the brief, impromptu acceptance speech Powell made in front of his former teammates. “He hates getting recognized for stuff like this.”
“It was kind of emotional for him,” Strom added.
Originally from New Zealand, Strom came to Ottawa in late 2012, around the same time Powell arrived from Australia. Strom explained that what most people don’t understand about expats is the feeling of leaving behind a family and trading a familiar livelihood for the unknown.
The life member award was the Swans’ message to Powell that the family he found in Canada won’t soon forget him.
“It’s kind of like getting your jersey retired,” Strom said, putting the award’s significance into Canadian terms.
As a player, Powell played in 55 games for the Swans and kicked 82 goals, all while doing the little things that help a team succeed, like creating space for teammates, or putting his body on the line making chase-down tackles – “the stuff that gets unrewarded on the stat sheet,” as Strom puts it.
As head coach during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Powell amassed a 24-4 record and led the men’s team to its first ever Premiership title, while being named the Australian Football League Ontario’s coach of the year.
But Strom stresses that what Powell did away from the field is what earned him the highest honour an Aussie rules club can give one of its members – things like finding sponsorships to help keep the amateur club afloat, or opening his doors to provide free room and board for young, newly arrived Australian players in need of a place to get settled in Ottawa.
Powell also made a concerted effort to develop the team’s Canadian players, who make up 12 of the 18 players allowed on the field at one time according to league rules. The result is a team that’s raised its Canadian contingent to the standard set by its talented import players.
“If you watch our team play, unless you hear the accent on the field you won’t be able to spot the Aussies from the Canadians,” said Strom.
Above all, Powell created a playing culture founded on the subtle, unselfish plays that help put points on the board, but come without the stat-sheet glory – the plays that made him the ultimate teammate in his playing years.
“That was his huge belief,” imparted Strom. “That if you could get 18 guys to buy into those things being the most important on the field, that all the rest of what you need to do in a game would follow suit.”
Now taking on the head-coaching role after Powell’s exit, Strom is focused on carrying out his predecessor’s vision for the team.
“This year has just been about trying to solidify the culture and the strategy that (Powell) had brought to the club,” Strom emphasized.
With a 7-0 record to start this season, that winning culture appears to be going steady – and it’s carried over to the women’s side that’s started the season 5-0 after appearing in the Grand Final last season.