October 17, 2017 (Hamilton Spectator)
by Scott Radley
The chairman of the Hamilton Sports Hall of Fame was golfing with Greg Norman’s son in Florida a couple years ago when the topic turned to wakeboarding.
See, despite being the son of a legendary golfer, junior had been a pro wakeboarder once upon a time and was now in business building parks for the sport.
“I said, ‘I know a wakeboarder in Hamilton,'” Garry McKay said. “I think he’s pretty good.”
“Who’s that?” Norman asked somewhat absently.
“Jeremy Kovak,” McKay replied.
Immediately, Norman’s head jerked up and his eyes widened. As he spoke again, his words slowed for emphasis.
“You … know … Jeremy … Kovak?”
At this point he paused and stared in awe.
“He’s a legend in the sport.”
It was a big deal for all of them. Being recognized by your hometown always is. But for Kovak, this honour gave him more attention and greater acclaim than he’s ever received around here.
His lack of recognition at home was really no fault of Hamiltonians. Wakeboarding doesn’t exactly garner top billing among local sports fans. That was especially true back when he was winning world and X Games championships in the 1990s. Even so, it sure was noticeable, he admits.
When he would compete at pro events in Florida and other parts of the American south, he would be swamped. Hour-long lines for autographs would form every day. Honeycomb cereal boxes bearing his image would be signed along with anything else. It got so crazy sometimes the 30-time winner on the pro tour had to duck into the sponsors’ tent just to get a break.
Simply put, he was huge. A massive superstar in his world.
“Then you come home to your hometown and nobody knows you,” he says.
He admits that as a young man it was humbling and a blow to the ego. Just as unsettling through, was the lack of recognition his sport received here and how he seemed to have no ability to grow it despite his best efforts.
Seeing that rectified is one of the great parts of the Hamilton sports hall.
Everybody knows Ric Nattress. He played a sport that’s on TV all the time and gets tons of attention. He made it to the highest level and played in Toronto for the Maple Leafs. He won a Cup and has the ring to prove it. He should be in this hall for sure but nobody would forget about him if he wasn’t.
Many folks know of Knight. Again, his sport is native to this country and his success was widely trumpeted throughout the 1960s as he was collecting medals and titles. He skated in the Olympics and toured the world as a show pro.
Juravinski is a name nobody around here hasn’t heard. Whether that’s for his huge successes founding and operating Flamboro Downs and growing harness racing or for his philanthropy that has helped many with cancer and other health conditions, he’s entirely famous.
And as a legend in the not-always-front-and-centre sport of equestrian, you might think Neale-Ishoy flew under the radar around here. But she says that’s not the case. In fact, during a visit to a Hamilton hospital a few months back, the doctor came in to talk with her and appeared a little star struck.
“Oh my,” he said. “I feel I should shake your hand. You’re the Bobby Orr of dressage.”
She looked at him rather shocked.
“My daughter rides,” he said.
Those are the more-common situations. But over the eight years it’s been operating, there have been a number of folks like Kovak inducted. People deserving of attention and worthy of having their achievements remembered yet who likely would’ve been forgotten but for this hall. Or never widely known.
That’s important for local sports fans and, frankly, future generations who can learn about folks from this city who’ve gone on to greatness in the area, the province, the country and the world. People with some of the most-remarkable stories and incredible careers you could ever hear.
As a video of his career played in front of a ballroom jammed with several hundred people — the majority there to see him — Kovak wiped his eyes and looked genuinely blown away by the moment.
Being honoured at last by his hometown mattered that much?
“It couldn’t have meant more to me.”