Olympics Summer

Looking for summer hockey glory

Going int the Olympics the team is ranked 15th, the lowest for any team except for the host team from China

A realistic goal for the field hockey team will be a top 8 finish

Canada's Connor Grimes, left, fights off the challenge by New Zealand's Felix Denayer during their match at the 17th Sultan Azlan Shah Cup field hockey tournament in Ipoh, in northern Malaysia earlier this year. ((Kamarul Akhir/AFP/Getty Images))

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Canadian sports fans won’t be surprised to learn that their Olympic hockey team has been built on grit and determination. What might surprise them, however, is that instead of ice this hockey team plays on Astro Turf. 

It’s no surprise to Louis Mendonca, either. The head coach of the Canadian men’s field hockey team says, "We’re a pretty gritty group,  just like other Canadian teams." 

Judging by the Beijing competition, they’ll need all the grit they can get. 

The 12-team Olympic field will be broken into two groups. Canada will be in Pool B with Australia, the world’s top-ranked squad, the Netherlands (3), Pakistan (7), Great Britain (8) and South Africa (13). 

With a current world standing of 15th, Canada is the lowest ranked team in the Olympic tournament other than the host Chinese, ranked 17th

Coach not fazed

None of that fazes Mendonca, though. The 50-year old Thornhill, Ont., resident thinks a realistic goal for his boys is a top-8 finish with a top-6 not out of the question. 

"It’s not being overly ambitious to try for a top-8 finish," he explains. "The rankings are flawed because points are awarded based on performances at the big tournaments. Lower ranked teams don’t get invited to those. We’ve been rebuilding and have a lower ranking than we deserve." He added, "A top-8 finish will get us into those bigger tournaments." 

A look at the record shows that Mendonca has a solid basis for being cautiously optimistic. 

He took over the team from his predecessor, Gene Muller, in November 2006, seven months before the Pan Am Games in Brazil. That tournament served as an Olympic qualifier for the North and South American region. 

Not much was expected of the Canadians. But they made the gold medal match against Argentina, ranked sixth in the world. After regulation and extra time ended with the score knotted 2-2, Wayne Fernandes of Mississauga, Ont., fired a shootout winner and Canada – shockingly – had grabbed the gold and qualified for Beijing. 

Canada used to tough competition

Since then, the team has acquitted itself very well against some formidable competition. On their recent European tour, the Canadians scored victories over Pakistan and Great Britain, played Belgium to a draw and were edged 4-3 by Spain, ranked fourth in the world. 

Mendonca, who began coaching at the provincial level in 1984, cites those results as reasons to believe the Canadians can surprise a few people in Beijing. "We’ve beaten quite a lot of good teams in the past few years," he points out. "Our chances are good because teams anywhere from 6th to 18th in the rankings are very competitive." 

With the Olympic competition looking like a dog fight, Mendonca is counting on his most experienced players to lead the way. The team will field six veterans of Canada’s last Olympic appearance, a 10th place result at Sydney 2000. Between them, midfielders Rob Short (the team captain) and Ken Perreira, defenders Bindi Kullar, Ravi Kahlon and Paul Wettlaufer and goalkeeper Mike Mahood have played for the national team an astounding 1,215 times. 

Short leads the way with 271 international appearances followed closely by Perreira of Unionville, Ont., with 265. Says Mendonca of his vets: "Rob Short and his assistants have each played over 200 times. They’ve beaten countries such as Australia and Holland. They know it can be done and they preach that to the kids." 

European veterans

Some of those veterans even bring European pro experience to the table. Forward Connor Grimes of Duncan, B.C., plays for HGC Wassenaar while studying international business at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. Team captain Short and his younger brother Peter, a forward, also play in the Dutch League for Amsterdam-based club Laren MHC. 

With a core of players who have been around, the team is confident but not cocky. Mendonca likes the fact that his team isn’t locked into a particular style of play and can change its look on the fly. 

"Canada has our own unique style," he explained. "The midfield dictates our tempo. Our offense is very methodical yet creative once we’re in the scoring area." 

Still, Canada’s strength, as Mendonca sees it, lies in solid defense and great goalkeeping, another thing that’s not unlike the style of their winter colleagues. A source of confidence going into Beijing is goaltender Mahood. Mendonca considers the North Vancouver native to be one of the top five goaltenders in the world. 

Despite the positives, the Canadians know they aren’t serious medal contenders. Germany, which won the last World Championship as well as winning the 2002 and 2006 World Cup titles, must be considered a favourite for gold along with Australia. Mendonca also puts the Netherlands, Spain and Korea in the medal hunt. 

But Mendonca doesn’t believe his boys our playing out of their league. "On any given day, and if the butterflies don’t hit in, we’ll be competitive," he argues. "As long as the guys don’t self-doubt themselves, we’ll be in any match." 

Like their ice-bound brethren, Canada’s field hockey team will rely on hard work, grit and determination to achieve their Olympic goals in Beijing. Two victories will get them their hoped-for top-8 finish. Beyond that, who knows what’s possible for a team that’s already surprised a few of the world’s field hockey powers.

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