Field of Play: Sleeper sport will sizzle at Pan Ams
TO2015 puts volleyball in the spotlight, writes Scott Russell
It's amazing what you learn about Canadian sport when you dig down to the grassroots.
This past weekend, I attended the Newfoundland and Labrador Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony in St. John's and was astounded by the depth of talent across a wide variety of athletic endeavours.
Duly celebrated were local hockey and fastball legends as well as track runners including a number of coaches and builders of various sports. But not to be overshadowed were two volleyball stars who carved out lasting careers on the place they call "The Rock."
Deon Goulding of Gander, a giant of a man, spent time with the men's national team and played at the Pan Am Games in Mar del Plata, Argentina in 1995. Carla Edwards of Grand Falls made a name for herself as a force at the net with Mount Allison University.
Both noted the buzz which is building around volleyball at the upcoming Pan American Games in Toronto this summer.
"It's a different culture," Goulding enthused about the sport he's spent a lifetime loving as both an athlete and mentor. "We as Canadians are starting to adopt that culture and when Toronto rolls around the fans are coming out full force."
Growing popularity in Canada
Volleyball is one of the most practiced sports in the world and based on a 2010 StatsCan survey is one of the five most popular sports in this country.
More than half a million Canadians responded by saying they participated in volleyball. The national championships which will be played in Calgary in mid-May are the most extensive for any sport in Canada boasting 800 teams and 10,000 athletes at all age levels. The competition requires 59 courts at two separate venues over the course of seven days to complete.
"It's portable and accessible," reckons Edwards. "It's huge in the Americas. It requires power, speed and delicate skill. Not many sports have been able to achieve that balance. It is a quiet but forceful game."
Canada is experiencing an upswing in elite-level volleyball at just the right time. In particular the men have enjoyed best-ever finishes at the world championships (seventh last year), and in the professional World League circuit where they made the final group in 2013 and wound up fifth including a remarkable upset win over Russia.
"We're definitely a contender but it's extremely competitive and difficult," says Paul Duerden, a former stalwart player who led Canada to Pan Am Games bronze in Winnipeg in 1999. He expects the home teams in both men's and women's play to hold their own this summer but they'll face international powerhouses from Brazil, Cuba, the United States and Argentina who together represent the most formidable volleyball nations on the planet.
"We want to have a strong Canadian showing, it will be important for sponsorship and recognition going forward," Duerden says. "It's guaranteed fans will be blown away by the speed of the game. It is totally astounding to see these national teams play in a 'live' format."
Volleyball will be Pan Am sleeper sport
Canada has not qualified for the Olympics in volleyball since the women made the grade in Atlanta in 1996 while the men last competed in 1992 at Barcelona. Over the years there have been three Pan Am Games medals with the men taking bronze in 1979 and 1999 whereas the women were third at Mar del Plata in 1995.
On home courts in Toronto this summer both teams are expected to face fervent crowds who might be supporting other squads which hail from countries where volleyball is much more than a sport… it's akin to a national passion play. In Brazil tickets have just gone on sale for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and volleyball is by far the biggest draw.
"I was blown away by the crowds we played before in Winnipeg," Duerden recalls. "At Pan Am volleyball crowds are big, vocal, crowds. In Toronto let's hope they are home crowds because we've had tremendous growth in popularity in this sport in our country."
Canada's first international participation in volleyball came when the men's team played at the Pan American Games in Chicago in 1959.
The sport has flourished dramatically on a national basis at all levels in the more than half century since that debut.
Chances are real that because of a grassroots groundswell, volleyball will be the sleeper sport that sizzles this summer at the home Games in Toronto.