Regina's Len Antonini moves forward after 30-year career as a firefighter

“I’m 60 years old and I was still getting the rush from going to a call,” says Len Antonini, a Regina firefighter who retired amid COVID-19.

Len Antonini is looking forward to retirement and concentrating on Regina Minor Football after 30 years as a firefighter. BRANDON HARDER / Regina Leader-Post

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Len Antonini has seen it all through his 30-year career with Regina Fire and Protective Services.

He has been a first responder on the scene of some horrific accidents and paid the emotional price that those events can exact of even the most experienced firefighter.

“With all of that said, I would still do it again because I loved it,” Antonini said. “It was still one of the greatest jobs ever. Going to a scene where people need you is pretty rewarding and exciting. I’m 60 years old and I was still getting the rush from going to a call.”

Antonini’s career with the fire department started on March 21, 1990, and ended on March 31 this year with his retirement as a captain.

In between those milestones, Antonini’s appreciation for his job grew. He was a multi-sport athlete while growing up in Regina and found similarities between sports and being a firefighter.

“The fire department is like a team,” he said. “You sit around the hall, you practise, you work on your game and then you go play the game. You get the adrenaline rush and the excitement and everything else that happens in sports. The only thing different about the fire department and a team is you just don’t know when your games are.”

Or what could be waiting when responding to a call. Antonini recalled attending three sudden-infant death calls during his first two years as a firefighter.

“That was really tough on me and I didn’t realize it,” Antonini said.

Fast forward to 2004 and Antonini was the first firefighter on the scene for a crash between a car loaded with seven youths and a semi-trailer on the Trans-Canada Highway. The car, driven by an unlicensed 15-year-old, crossed the median and crashed into the semi-trailer. Two 13-year-old boys and two girls, aged 12 and 15, were killed in the crash that the three other teens survived.

“I think that changed me quite a bit,” Antonini said.

Other calls contributed to Antonini being diagnosed and treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. He realized something wasn’t quite right during a conversation with Kelly Hamilton, a friend since their days attending Archbishop M.C. O’Neill High School.

Former firefighter Len Antonini stands in the Regina Minor Football equipment room. BRANDON HARDER / Regina Leader-Post

“He did have some tough (calls), but everybody has had some tough ones at some point or another,” said Hamilton, who retired in 2019 after a long career as a firefighter. “Some people can let it wash off and not let it get to them. Other people, it takes 10 years or whatever. Everybody’s different and all of the calls are different, so it’s certainly not a weakness.

“Everybody has different compassions and remembers different things in different ways. I know he had a couple of tough ones and it was hard for me. At one point, I thought he needed help so he went and got help. I could just tell that he wasn’t himself. I made a suggestion as a friend and he was very thankful for it.”

Antonini learned during his recovery about dealing with PTSD.

“Over your life, you tuck away all of those emotions and you keep tucking them inside of you until eventually they come out,” Antonini said. “I ended up drinking way too much and, with the post-traumatic stress, I didn’t realize it.”

Despite those challenges, Antonini has fond memories of being firefighter.

“I loved ribbing the guys,” Antonini said. “You’re constantly joking around, having fun, and laughing. You have to have that or else you won’t survive at that level.”

The final shift for a retiring firefighter is traditionally marked by a celebration and recognition of a long career. Antonini noted that some firefighters visited fire halls across the city as part of a farewell tour.

Antonini didn’t feel comfortable doing that due to the restrictions in place to help curb the spread of COVID-19. A banquet set for May that recognized retiring firefighters was then postponed.

“I don’t think Lenny would ever complain that he didn’t get a sendoff or he didn’t get anything, because it’s not about that,” Hamilton said. “It’s not about the final day. It’s about the journey that we went through and that he went through.

“Everybody has their own little sendoffs and get-togethers and he’ll have his. It’s not like he’s not going to have it. At the end of the day, he can say that he gave it his all, it was a great career and he came out a little scathed. He would say that it was a positive career and he had a lot of good things happen.”

COVID-19 has also forced Antonini to alter his retirement plans. Antonini is the executive director of Regina Minor Football and was looking forward to a busy spring in that role without having to schedule it around his firefighting duties. That changed when sports facilities were closed due to the coronavirus, which led to the cancellation of RMF’s spring programs.

“I’m not really missing the fire department, but I don’t know if I’m really feeling what retirement’s going to be like because it hasn’t really hit me yet,” Antonini said.

Antonini and Hamilton have been involved with RMF since 1995 when they joined the executive. At the time, 375 kids were involved in RMF, which was primarily limited to a fall season.

Now, there are 2,000 boys and girls involved with RMF, which includes spring and fall leagues. Since 2011, Leibel Field has been refurbished with artificial turf, grandstand and the electronic scoreboard from old Mosaic Stadium.

Former firefighter Len Antonini can be seen through a window in the Regina Minor Football building. BRANDON HARDER / Regina Leader-Post

In April 2018, the RMF Headquarters opened, a $4-million project that includes office space, dressing rooms, a classroom, boardroom, locker rooms and equipment room.

All in, the improvements cost $9.2 million, of which only $2 million remains outstanding thanks in part to Antonini’s skills as a fundraiser.

“We call ourselves a married couple because he raises the money and I spend it,” Hamilton said with a laugh. “It has been good because our relationship has been that and we never really wanted to step on each other’s toes. He had lots of good connections and continued with those connections while doing the fundraising aspect of it.”

The efforts of Antonini and Hamilton in regards to RMF were recognized in 2013 when they were both inducted into the Regina Sports Hall of Fame.

“It really isn’t the Lenny and Kelly show,” Hamilton said. “There’s a really good group of board of directors that work as hard as we do making sure that we are doing our checks and balances and we’re spending the money in the right places and we’re doing the right designs and developments.”

Antonini’s commitment to RMF is a product of his deep Regina roots. He went to Sacred Heart School and played football at O’Neill with Hamilton. Antonini was a co-owner and manager of the Regina Racquetball Club for 25 years while serving as a firefighter.

He played junior hockey, baseball and broomball and spent five seasons with the Regina Junior Rams, sharing in two Canadian junior football championships.

Despite the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, Antonini is pleased with his life.

Antonini and his wife, Kelly, have been married for 36 years and have a son Campbell, 34, and daughter Amy, 32. Campbell and his wife, Kyla, have an 11-month old daughter, Lenni, and Len dotes over his granddaughter.

Now that Antonini is retired, he’s looking forward to spending time with his granddaughter and other aspects of his life as a former firefighter.

“The one thing I’m noticing now is that there’s less stress on me compared to when I was a captain, because of the scenarios that you can get yourself into,” Antonini said. “We were paid very well, but when you think about it, if we make a mistake someone could die. So I do feel a little more relaxed.”