Each year during his Cordova Cup weekend, John Hogue takes a white plastic chair from the dock and plunks it in the lake. Sitting in the shallows with the water of Cordova Lake swirling around his calves, he takes in one of the in-water volleyball games being played by two of the teams vying for the highly contested championship title. In one hand, he has beer in a red Solo cup, poured from a keg on the dock. In the other, a cigar. From this vantage, off the shore of his family’s cottage in the Kawartha Lakes region, John observes the product of months, indeed years, of planning and tweaking and organizing. For five minutes, maybe 10, he savours it, listening to the good-natured chirping by the other players. He might even join in the razzing. John, after all, is captain of one of the teams competing in the tournament, and he is equally invested in winning.
And then someone asks him a question. Or the game ends. And John’s moment is over, and he resumes his role as the guy everyone relies on to pull off the annual Cordova Cup tournament, which, let’s be clear, is no ordinary cottage weekend.
What is the Cordova Cup? Well, it’s a boys’ weekend and volleyball tournament organized by John, a 33-year-old combination of Steve Jobs, Marie Kondo, and Scotty Bowman. Planning starts around the first of January. (John disputes this, but enough people agree that we’ll consider it fact.) His oldest friend, Cam Gibson—they met in kindergarten—says it begins even before January. “John gives himself a week or two off after each tournament, and then he starts planning next year…he lives for this,” Cam says.
Plenty of the two-dozen players have been part of the Cordova Cup since its inception 17 years ago. Andy Mac, a high school friend of John’s, doesn’t take part as a player, but he’s the official event photographer. “Every one of those guys, they have history with each other,” Andy says. “They can all joke with each other. They all know each other’s wives and children.” A few have opted out over the years—there are rules that not everyone can abide by: no partners or kids, and no exceptions. You’ve got to pay your $140 (which covers uniforms, food, and accommodation) on time to secure your spot. Competition is fierce but fair. Everyone has a nickname, and John is the bestower of nicknames. Chris Hepditch, for instance, is Cheese. (Long story, but “you either own it or you suffer,” says Cheese, who is grateful that he’s not the guy in the group who’s saddled with “Nutsack.”)
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“I don’t know half the guys’ real names,” says Kris Kent (Kringle), a team captain, with the team colours of, you guessed it, red and green.
Being a team captain is an honour and allows you to choose your players in the Friday night draft. The draft follows some exhibition games so the captains get a sense of the players’ abilities, even if they’ve seen them year after year. And they take it very seriously. Especially John, who, even as a kid, was creating brackets for kickball and “miniature soccer” tournaments for his cottage buddies. “I’ve always been intrigued by professional sports…this is my own little fantasy draft,” he says.
And John comes by it honestly. The Cordova Cup began as a paintball tournament in 2005, based loosely on a similar event that John’s parents, Sean and Nancy Hogue, used to host at their home in Brooklin, Ont. “Organization is who we are,” says Sean. “It’s in our DNA.”
John would invite his buddies up, and they would goof around by playing volleyball in the shallow water off the cottage shore the day after the paintball tournament. In 2008, while doing his usual post-mortem of the event, John wondered aloud about skipping the tournament altogether. But another guy, no one can recall who, suggested they shift to volleyball. The idea stuck. And it has for 15 years.
The two-dozen guys arrive on Friday evening, and John’s sister, Samantha, and his cousin Jessica Ouroumis (technically, the daughter of close cottage neighbours) greet everyone just up the dirt road from the cottage with instructions and bottles of water. Someone directs the arrivals to nearby parking spots.
Attached to a piece of plywood is a poster-sized schedule for the weekend. There’s a makeshift stage outside the large garage across the road. Beside it, sound equipment plays music, heavy on Queen, and two dozen white plastic lawn chairs are lined up in rows in front. Numbered tents are already set up beside the cottage, and each attendee is assigned one.
It’s still light outside when John, wearing a black blazer over a tank top and shorts, runs through the crowd and stops to shotgun a can of Mill Street before running up the steps to the stage. He notes a loose top step and warns everyone about it before announcing, “Welcome to all of you. I love you all!”
He lays out the rules, including where to put garbage and recycling, how not to confuse the two, and where to deposit cigar butts. “Games will start on time no matter what,” he says into a mic. “Do not argue with the referee.” He moves on to thank-yous, starting with his parents. “You’re here because they have a cottage,” he hollers to claps and cheers.
Somewhere around 9 p.m., the doors to the garage will be locked, and only the six team captains, some wearing blazers over former years’ Cordova Cup tank tops, will be allowed in and out while they negotiate for the players they want on their side. They used to do an open draft, but one guy—who was picked last—got offended, and John “felt awful,” so he switched it to a closed draft.
Also inside the garage hang new team uniforms—tank tops with custom team logos and names, swim shorts, hats branded with the current year—on two portable garment racks. The team captains sit around a table, arguing over players whose photos are mounted on gold-, silver-, or bronze-coloured paper based on skill level, and organized into first-, second-, and third-round picks.
Outside, Sean is grilling hot dogs nearby for the rest of the guys whose weekend fates are being decided inside. There’s corn hole and beer pong. Metallica provides the soundtrack.
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“I’m fixing how long the draft lasts,” says John, after this year’s 90-minute affair. “It’s always the beast.” The sun disappears behind some cottages on the west side of Cordova Lake, but the area around the Hogue’s cottage remains well-lit, from lights installed for the weekend’s events, and also from a full moon in a clear sky.
Watching the mayhem quietly from a Muskoka chair on the porch of the Hogues’ cottage is photographer Andy Mac, who has the unusual distinction of being the only guy whose nickname—Belfast, a reference to Mac’s Irish roots—is used by everyone but John, to whom he’s just “Andy.” Though Belfast and John knew each other in high school, it wasn’t until they were both working one summer at a golf course that they became friends. Belfast is candid about his alcoholism and substance abuse and credits John with being there for him when he was at his worst. “He would go out of his way to make sure I got home, or he would call me later on in the day. I hadn’t had anyone do that for me.” When Belfast got sober and discovered photography, John invited him to attend the Cup as the official photographer. John’s loyalty to Belfast isn’t exceptional, the other guys say. That’s just how John is.
The backdrop to all of John’s showmanship, the cottage, a recently constructed timber-frame, perches on Canadian shield rock overlooking the lake.
“It’s a family feeling when you’re driving down the road toward the cottage,” says Matt Bailey (McBailey), a team captain and a cottage neighbour from before any of them were in school. His grandparents, Mike and Joan Bailey, own the cottage beside the Hogues. Mike and Joan used to be part of the crew that helped feed the guys. And they’re good sports about the noise. “I don’t like their choice of music,” says Mike, though it won’t stop them from coming by on Saturday to watch some of the games.
Other cottagers sometimes stop their boats and watch. “They actually look forward to it,” says Nancy Hogue, John’s mom. “They ask us when it’s going to be.” John’s parents have rules too, such as insisting that the music stop at 11 p.m. So far, no one has complained.
Back on stage, John invites the captains up for the team reveals. Samantha, who, along with Jessica, is the tournament scorekeeper, watches her brother take the stage. “This is John,” she says. “Anything he can ‘event’ up, he will.”
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It’s 7 a.m. on Saturday, the sun is shining,
the water is calm, and John wakes up the team captains, who, in turn, wake up their players for breakfast. John’s friend and former housemate, AJ Howard (The DJ) takes care of the playlist and is setting up music in the gazebo overlooking the water.
A yellow plastic Muskoka chair sits on top of the wooden referee’s tower, constructed by The DJ and also painted yellow. The DJ and a couple of others always come up a few days early to prep and build whatever John has decided they need. “John has the ‘out there’ ideas, I make it work,” says The DJ. “All of it’s technically unnecessary, but it’s unnecessarily awesome.”
The guys have already raked the shallow water to get rid of as many zebra mussels as they can, though players still wear water shoes. “We’ve learned,” says Rob Mark (Ricky Robby). Another platform opposite the referee’s tower holds another two yellow Muskoka chairs for the scorekeepers.
Jessica’s sister Julia Ouroumis, the referee, is MIA but, no matter, the guys will take turns filling in. The first game starts at 8:30 a.m. This year, McBaileys and La Fromage are the unlucky teams stuck with the early game.
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John has already carefully constructed the schedule with games played each half-hour, with a break at noon for lunch. The six teams play round-robin style until the two teams that win their pool advance directly to the semi-finals, skipping over the quarter-finals, where the other four teams battle it out. The winners of the semi-finals move on to the finals, and the losers go on to a third-place game, which John admits he added to give the teams playing for first or second place a break.
It’s pure chaos. There’s roughhousing in the water, the soundtrack is a mix of classic rock, metal, and a bit of country, good-natured insults fly over the net as easily as the volleyball, and the keg on the dock keeps everyone quenched. And whenever McBaileys is in the water, teammember Domenic Porco (Dom) can’t seem to stop himself from dancing.
Nonetheless, at 5 p.m., it’s down to the championship game—a repeat of the day’s first game between McBaileys and La Fromage. The sky has been threatening rain all afternoon, and it finally releases a steady drizzle, which drives much of the audience off the dock for shelter. John has, of course, prepared for this, and there are umbrellas. It’s a great game, with each side holding their own until, finally, McBaileys takes the extra point and the championship.
The winning team is free to go to the garage, where it’s dry, and there are cigars, cold beer, music, and a letter of congratulations from the “Commissioner,” a.k.a. John. Everybody else is conscripted to clean up, which means dismantling the platforms and storing the pool noodles and plastic chairs. John has it down to a science—60 minutes and all traces of the event are gone from the water.
Everyone joins the winners in the garage where John awards the third place, second place, and, of course, the cup. The champs get to publicly gloat, John says a few words, and then McBaileys enjoy a steak dinner, prepared by John’s parents. (“We’ve thought of burning the steak,” says Sean, “so we don’t have to do it anymore.”) A food truck brings burgers for everyone else, another of John’s changes after he realized how exhausted his mom was from cooking so many meals.
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It’s one of the reasons that the Cordova Cup will soon be winding down. The event takes a ton of work, John says, and he’s acutely aware of what he’s been asking of his family. “I have committed myself mentally to making it such a professional, cool weekend for the next five years,” says John. That will take the Cordova Cup to its 20th anniversary. After that…who knows? It will undoubtedly be emotional. “This is my favourite weekend of the year,” says Ricky Robby. “We may not see each other all year, but we have this,” says McBailey. “I wouldn’t see all the guys without this event,” says The DJ. “John’s the glue,” says Cheese. “He’s one of the best friends you’ll ever have,” says Gibson.
It gives John five more years to carve out his few minutes each Cordova Cup weekend to take it all in. “I always feel like it’s a big success when I have the chance to sit in the water,” he says. He used to “obsess” about getting all of the guys courtside in the water for a photo. “It happened one year,” he recalls. “I think it was 2012, and I have a panoramic picture.” It was a hot August day, and somebody on the lake in a pontoon boat snapped a shot and gave it to him. It’s one of his favourite pictures. The cottage behind him, the guys, the lake. He marvels that his family’s particular location on the water, with the only sandbar, creates the perfect conditions for an in-water volleyball tournament.
“It was meant to be,” says John. “Cordova Lake is a piece of me. That’s why it’s the Cordova Cup.”
This article was originally published in the August 2022 issue of Cottage Life magazine.