Gord Perrin returns home in hopes of leading Canadian volleyball back to Olympics
Captain back in B.C. for last-chance qualifying tournament ahead of Tokyo 2020
A nine-hour drive through southern B.C. many years ago set Gord Perrin on his path to the Canadian national volleyball team.
Now, just over nine years after his debut, Perrin is back where it all started.
The 30-year-old from Creston, B.C., is captain of Canada's volleyball team. In 2016, he helped Canada make its first Olympic men's volleyball appearance since 1992. Perrin's squad placed fifth at the Rio Games and while there are no moral victories in sports, that quarter-final exit came close.
Still, even modest success leads to increased expectations, and the obvious next step is an Olympic podium at the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
But Canada must first earn its place there, which is why Perrin finds himself back in Vancouver alongside his national teammates in a must-win scenario.
Canada, ranked seventh internationally, faces a last-chance Olympic qualifier, from which only the victor will head to Tokyo.
All of the action from B.C. will be streamed live on CBCSports.ca. Canada kicks things off against 21st-ranked Mexico on Friday at 9:30 p.m. ET, before taking on Cuba (No. 18) on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET and wrapping up the three-game tournament against Puerto Rico (No. 24) on Sunday at 7 p.m. ET.
"Coming to Vancouver it's really a full circle because I haven't been back playing since the start of my career," said Perrin. "So it's pretty cool."
O Captain! My Captain! Canada’s 🇨🇦 Gord Perrin is a great combination of experience + speed + skills.<br>Check out some of his moments at 2019 <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/VNL?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#VNL</a>.<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Volleyball?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Volleyball</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/VNLMen?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#VNLMen</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/Gord_Perrin?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Gord_Perrin</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/VBallCanada?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@VBallCanada</a> <a href="https://t.co/HDMgLGN5oR">pic.twitter.com/HDMgLGN5oR</a>—@FIVBVolleyball
The last event Perrin played in Vancouver was a NORCECA tournament in 2013. But it was that nine-hour journey from Creston, near the U.S. border in the B.C. interior when Perrin was 15 that once determined whether volleyball was viable for him in the first place.
"It was really frightening for me because it was like my first time being away from my family and being away from my friends in the summer," Perrin said.
Despite that challenge, he was chosen to the B.C. provincial team, which became the springboard to where he finds himself today.
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In 2020, most of Perrin's life is spent away from friends and family. It's part of the lifestyle of a professional volleyball player, and Perrin has lived an extreme version — the past four seasons he's played in Poland, China, Russia and now Brazil.
"You're getting a complete fresh 15 guys that you don't know anything about and then you spend eight hours a day, every day, for eight months together," Perrin said of the nomadic life. "So it's kinda just, this is your family and then when you leave you find a new family. So it's kinda been my life since that first trip when I was 15."
There is always Canada to come home to, but reuniting with the national team comes with its own challenges. Each of Canada's six starters plays professionally in leagues around the world, which means they haven't trained together for at least a few months.
Some notable teammates joining Perrin include starting libero Blair Bann (Edmonton), setters Jay Blankeneau (Sherwood Park, Alta.) and TJ Sanders (London, Ont.), blocker Graham Vigrass (Calgary) and outside Nick Hoag (Sherbrooke, Que.).
Hoag's father Glenn, who competed at the 1984 Olympics, is the head coach.
Also this weekend, Canada's women will battle in a zonal qualifier in the Dominican Republic with their place at the Tokyo Olympics on the line too. Joining the 18th-ranked Canadians will be the host Dominicans (No. 10), Puerto Rico (No. 13) and Mexico (No. 21).
The women's team hasn't played at the Olympics since 1996.
Stationed in Ottawa the week before the Vancouver tournament, Perrin and his teammates spent nearly six hours per day training and re-familiarizing themselves with each other.
Morning sessions consisted of fitness training and lower-impact skill work such as receptions and serving. In the evening, the team scrimmaged six-on-six to build chemistry and re-learn each other's tendencies on the court.
"That's the small differences that will win the game because most everybody [has] pretty physical players at this level," Perrin said. "So you obviously have to play together a lot and just knowing where you have to be in certain situations is very helpful."
As captain, Perrin is a crucial cog in that re-familiarization process. But Perrin's leadership style is more about setting good examples on the court than rallying the troops off of it, said Olympic teammate Nick Hoag.
"He just has this way of being calm on the court and even though he doesn't say much you can still tell he's calm and collected," Hoag said. "When guys see that with their eyes it makes them calm down and makes them play better."
Finding the pressure points
The team landed in Vancouver on Sunday, with the understanding they could not let this opportunity slide.
In August, Canada missed its first chance to reach the 2020 Olympics at a qualification tournament in China, where a four-set loss to sixth-ranked Argentina ultimately doomed any hope of early entry.
"We were expected to take that, so, so far we haven't met our expectations as a team, but I think we have a very good opportunity to qualify [in Vancouver]," Perrin said.
On home soil and ranked well ahead of any of its competitors, Canada enters as the favourite to win. But it's still just a three-day round-robin event which puts any team one bad set away from having to endure another four-year Olympic cycle.
Perrin pointed to pressure moments in the loss to Argentina as something the Canadians must correct.
"They took the points that were crucial at the end of each set so it's a very small gap and that's kinda how it is at that level," Perrin said. "So we just need to focus at the end of each set and hopefully we can win the big points."
The big points are pretty much every point at a tournament of this magnitude. Perrin expects a lively crowd, including family, friends and his former coaches from the club, university and provincial levels.
Perrin understands the pressure.
"Obviously there's a bigger expectation from the fans and bigger expectation from everyone involved in Volleyball Canada for us to be in the Olympic Games."