Wheelchair basketball·Preview

Canadian men's U23 wheelchair basketball team ready to seize opportunity at world championship

The future of Canadian men's wheelchair basketball will be on full display this week as the top junior national teams from across the globe battle for gold at the first men's under-23 world championship in five years.

Canada searching for 1st medal at the tournament since winning gold in 2001

Regina's Garrett Ostepchuk, left, will help lead the way as captain of the men's under-23 wheelchair basketball team at the world championship this week in Phuket, Thailand. (Dave Holland/Canadian Paralympic Committee)

The future of Canadian men's wheelchair basketball will be on full display this week as the top junior national teams from across the globe battle for gold at the first men's under-23 world championship in five years.

The tournament, featuring 12 countries, kicks off Wednesday in Phuket, Thailand — where Canada's 12-player team hopes to reach the podium at the tournament for the first time since 2001.

"It's a big stage for them," head coach Darrell Nordell told CBC Sports.

Normally held every four years, the seventh edition of the tournament was postponed last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Canada finished sixth in 2017 in Toronto, but the team won gold at the first two editions, in 1997 and 2001.

Two players from that 2017 squad, Ben Hagkull and Garrett Ostepchuk, are set to compete in their second U23 world championship.

"I'm really confident in the team's ability to do well in the tournament," Hagkull told CBC Sports. "Our coaching staff has put together a good group of guys to compete and to represent Canada very well. It's a really special opportunity."

Ostepchuk is also a member of the men's senior team. The Regina native represented Canada at the 2018 senior world championship and the Tokyo Paralympics last summer.

Ostepchuk and Hagkull are among 10 players returning from Canada's team at the U23 Americas Championship in March, a tournament in Mexico that saw the Canadians capture bronze with a win over the host nation. Canada also faced Brazil and the United States at the tournament, a pair of squads who are competing in Phuket.

An eye-opening experience

Nordell said the key event in Mexico provided an invaluable opportunity for the team's growth on the international stage, something that will pay dividends at U23 worlds and beyond.

"For a lot of those athletes, it was the first time getting international experience," Nordell said.

"To see it at the level that it was with the Brazil and the U.S.A. teams and how quick they were, it was definitely an eye-opener for them."

The 12 teams competing in Phuket are split into two groups of six, with the top four teams in each group advancing to the knockout stage that starts Sept. 13.

"It's going to be a great tournament. We're all really excited to go and ready to represent Canada well on the world stage," Hagkull said.

Canada is competing in Group A with Turkey, Brazil, Spain, Japan and France. The Canadians will open against Brazil on Wednesday at 5:30 a.m. ET, a familiar opponent they played twice in Mexico, having won one and lost one.

"We've seen that once we put our heads down and play as a team and play Canada basketball, we can compete and we can win against Brazil. It's great that that's our first game, because it's a little bit more familiar to us," Hagkull said.

The team also participated in a friendly game against South Africa to help get ready for the tournament. The South African squad is in Group B with the United States, Australia, Israel, Germany and Thailand.

'Growing opportunities'

While the goal is always to win gold, the event in Phuket is about much more than that for Canada; it's about the future. It will be an important stepping stone for a group of talented young players hoping to represent Canada at the 2026 senior world championship in Ottawa.

"These are growing opportunities for athletes, and these are our future athletes most likely for the 2026 world championship. It's going to be a huge event in Ottawa," Nordell said.

"For a lot of them, that's kind of where their echelon is, four years away in 2026."

Along with their captain, Ostepchuk, two other players on Canada's roster already have experience at the senior level.

Ostepchuk, Hagkull and Reed De'Aeth helped the senior men's team qualify for the 2022 world championship at the Americas Cup in July in Brazil, where the team won bronze. The world championship will be held in Dubai in late November.

De'Aeth's talents also led to him recently earning a scholarship to play at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Reed De'Aeth of Sherwood Park, Alta., was named Wheelchair Basketball Canada's junior athlete of the year in 2020. (@WCBballCanada/Twitter)

The three players will be looked upon to lead the way on the court in ways that go beyond the boxscore. Hagkull, a native of Chilliwack, B.C., will have an opportunity to play major minutes in Phuket after playing a minor role at the 2017 U23 world championship.

"Ben's been through a cycle now with us with the juniors, so just his leadership and his experience will help us," Nordell said.

Hagkull said the sixth-place finish at the U23 worlds in 2017 lit a fire under the junior program, and he is excited for the team to show how far the program has come in the years since.

"We have a very good chance to be one of those top teams and to be competitive with the best in the world. I'm really excited to see what we're made of. I feel like we're in a better place than we were in 2017," Hagkull said.

Discipline, patience, passing 

In a sport where limiting mistakes is essential, Nordell said the path to victory in Phuket will be all about discipline.

"If we can eliminate the amount of turnovers we have and control the ball the way we want and get home on defence and be disciplined, I think we can find success," Nordell said.

"Discipline, patience and passing are our three keys for our success. Our defence will take care of itself."

While winning gold would be a monumental moment for the Canadians, a podium finish alone would signify a major milestone for a program that has been steadily developing since a disappointing 0-5 finish at the Rio Paralympics in 2016.

"Medals are what you want all the time, but when you can go from what we had in Rio to what we had in Tokyo with our [senior] men's team, you can see that development again," Nordell said. "There's going to be gaps along the way, but it's about how do we get these athletes up to a place where they can feel comfortable going from a junior to senior team and then just keep rolling along.

"I see a bright future both on our men's and women's programs."

Canada's group stage schedule

  • Sept. 7 (5:30 a.m. ET) Canada vs. Brazil
  • Sept. 9 (5:15 a.m. ET) Canada vs. Spain
  • Sept. 10 (10:30 p.m. ET) Canada vs. Japan
  • Sept. 12 (12:45 a.m. ET) Canada vs. Turkey
  • Sept. 13 (3 a.m. ET) Canada vs. France

Canada's roster

  • Reed De'Aeth — Sherwood Park, Alta.
  • Collin Lalonde — St-Clet, Que.
  • Lionel Tamoki — Montreal
  • Gabriel Giguere — Drummondville, Que.
  • Austin MacLellan — Fredericton, N.B.
  • Josh Brown — East St. Paul, Man.
  • Ben Hagkull — Chilliwack, B.C.
  • Garrett Ostepchuk — Regina
  • Matthew Norris — Winnipeg
  • Mathew Wilton — Langley, B.C.
  • Joel Ewart — Prince George, B.C.
  • Kyrell Sopotyk — Saskatoon

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