Considering the lack of media attention it garnered, it may come as a surprise to some readers that both the men’s and women’s Canadian junior national hockey teams competed for gold in a major international tournament last week.
While many Vancouver hockey fans were fretting over not being able to watch the Canucks due to the NHL lockout and/or getting excited for the Vancouver Giants’ new season, a group of young athletes — most of them from the Lower Mainland — were in Guadalajara, Mexico playing their hearts out in a different sport that the rest of the world nonetheless refers to as hockey: field hockey.
Although field hockey is one of the top five most popular sports in the world, it is a very distant second to its frozen counterpart here in Canada.
Gordon Johnston, one of the country’s rising stars in the sport, wants to change this.
“We’d love for it to be a bigger deal in Canada,” said Johnston, a second-year engineering student at the University of British Columbia. “For some reason in North America it has turned into more of a female sport, but everywhere else in the world it is really big.”
The 19-year-old defenceman played a big part in Team Canada’s second-place finish last Sunday (Sept. 23) at the Pan American Junior Championships.
It was the team’s first appearance in the finals in 27 years, before any of the u-21 squad were even born, and earned them a berth at next year’s Junior World Cup in India.
Johnston, who hopes to play professionally in Europe, scored a hat trick in an 8-1 blowout against Chile in the semi-finals and potted the first goal at the final match against Argentina, a disappointing 3-2 loss.
While Russia and the U.S. are considered Canada’s biggest rivals in ice hockey, Argentina is Canada‘s main nemesis in field hockey and, as it turned out, the women’s junior team also lost to the South American country in the finals at the same tournament.
“Canada traditionally plays Argentina in finals of the [senior] Pan-Ams,” he said. “In the junior stage, it hasn’t happened quite as often. To lose was definitely disappointing but in the end we’ll have another chance to take them in India.”
Johnston, who began playing field hockey as a kid after his older sister stuck him in net when her team couldn’t find a goalie, said he hopes field hockey will become more of a mainstream sport in Canada.
He points out that women’s soccer doesn’t exactly pack Canadian stadiums either but everyone now knows the name Christine Sinclair.
“When you see the success of the women’s soccer team and how the whole country kind of came together behind them, we’d love it if people would someday do the same for us.”
His UBC Thunderbirds coach, Shiaz Virjee, feels the same way.
“Everybody loves a winner,” said Virjee, a former national team coach who led Team Canada to a 10th place finish at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. (Neither the men’s nor women’s national teams qualified for the recent London Games.) “In Canada, particularly for men, it is a minor sport, but internationally it is a very, very big sport. On the men’s side, we are ranked 14th in the world stage but with the recent success of the junior team, you hope with the next cycle of players coming through we’ll be able to propel the national team even further. It’s the old adage: If you build it, they will come.”
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