Inside the vast, green expanse of the University of British Columbia campus, there are stick-wielding Canadians looking to do some damage.
If you’re on their side, there’s no reason to be alarmed. They’re out to upset internationals, which – although sounds strange – should get Canadian backing since it’s in the context of hockey.
On Friday, Canadian women’s field hockey team will be leaving for Ireland to take part in World League Round 2, where if they advance on to the next stage it will mean another step toward attaining a spot at Rio 2016 – something that would also help raise the profile of their sport.
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“When (Canadians) think of success, they think of the Olympic Games,” women’s national team captain Kate Gillis, 25, told Olympic.ca on Tuesday. Gillis moved from Kingston, Ontario to Vancouver in grade 12 and finished high school via correspondence after committing to the national program. She would like to lead the women’s team back to the Games for the first time since 1992. “Some of us are not lucky enough to be there. That’s our goal, to make it to the Olympics.”
Indeed, the Olympics unite the nation and transform polite Canadians into partisans. There’s no ambiguity when the maple leaf is raised during a medal ceremony, Canadians universally acknowledge that only hard work and dedication makes that happen. The drama of Olympic presentation can sway national emotions and turn many athletes into household names.
“A lot of fans and people looking in on your sport associate success with making it to the Olympics,” Gillis said, “Rio 2016, Tokyo (2020) and wherever they’re going next, we’d like to be there.”
Canadian field hockey women and men have two chances to win an Olympic spot this year. The first is through World League and the second is at home in the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games, where the winner gets an automatic Rio 2016 berth.
Hannah Haughn, 20, is “excited to play in Canada, especially because field hockey is such a low-profile sport,” she says. Haughn started playing the game when she was six in North Vancouver where field hockey sees high participation rates. She was inspired by Gillis to pursue a hockey career.
“What sparked me to come play for the national team was my first time seeing international competition, got to see Kate play in the Olympic qualifier in 2007. After that I was hooked,” Haughn said sitting near Gillis at their national team offices in Vancouver, where a small but caring and supportive staff is trying to help their athletes achieve lofty ambitions.
Toronto 2015 gives players a chance to showcase their talent in front of friends and family that don’t get to see them play abroad very often. This is something Brienne Stairs, the team’s most prolific goalscorer, has thought about as well.
“The home crowds are huge when we go to other places, such as Argentina” says the 25-year old Stairs, from Kitchener, Ontario. She made her move to Vancouver in 2011 to commit to the cause. “The fans (in Argentina) were amazing. It’s great that we’re finally going to go to a place and have majority of fans cheering for us.”
That field hockey doesn’t get the adulation reserved for the ‘ice’ version of the sport in Canada is something these athletes take in stride.
“If it discouraged me I don’t think I would be here,” Haughn said with conviction.
“For us it’s all about playing. We’ve all dedicated our lives, made sacrifices and choices to make sure we’re out here and available one hundred percent of the time,” Gillis said echoing Haughn’s sentiment.
Much of the rest of the world calls their sport simply ‘hockey’ without a qualifier. It is one of the most competitive sports on earth, played at a high level on every habitable continent (with apologies to Antarctica).
Trying to elevate Canada’s place in such a contested climate is difficult work, but the players are up to the task. In Ireland, they hope to continue making the hockey world take notice by reaching the next round of the World League.
“This is why we play field hockey, this is why we train,” Haughn said.
“I think we have a little bit of respect,” Stairs added referring to compliments from rival teams on a recent tour to powerhouse New Zealand. “Our goal is to definitely qualify for top two (in Ireland) and advance to round three.”
“Going into Ireland we do have that confidence… we’re looking to do really well there,” Gillis concluded as the team gets a couple of days off before the next step in the Olympic journey begins.
While the women’s team heads to Ireland to start World League Round 2, the men’s side has already started their run of games in San Diego, California. The men have a Round 2 quarterfinal match on Thursday.
Feature photo: Kate Gillis at Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games by Yan Huckendubler via Field Hockey Canada.