Tall order for Canadian volleyballers

ALISON KORN, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:38 AM ET

The gangly guys of the Canadian men’s volleyball team are extraordinarily tall, and they need to be - they've got the world on their shoulders.

With many of them standing over two metres tall, playing professionally in Europe for eight months of the year and having a star coach to shepherd their development back home, Canada seems well-positioned to be a world contender. But with over 100 countries vying for one of the 12 spots at the 2012 London Olympics, their chances of making it are, unfortunately, rather slim.

This is a sport in which it's bloody hard to qualify for the Olympics.

“There are 30 to 40 very competitive teams in the world,” said head coach Glenn Hoag, of Gatineau, Quebec. “You have to take it a step at a time. Not to focus on the outcome, but on what to do to obtain the outcome. We’ve been working on that with the guys. They’re a young team. It’s tough to do.”

Hoag should know – he was part of the Canadian squad that finished fourth at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. That remains Canada’s top Olympic finish in indoor volleyball. Currently, the Canadian team is ranked 20th.

They’ve spent the summer together in preparation for the 2010 world championships in Italy next month. This week’s exhibition series against Cuba, one of the world’s volleyball powers, has helped prepare them for the three very physical teams they’ll meet in their pool at the worlds: Serbia, Poland and Germany.

“The pool of death,” said Hoag. “Our aim is to be in the top three in our pool. Then we could get a top-10 at the worlds.”

The worlds are an entry point for the 2012 Olympic Games via qualifications for the World Cup. The opening qualifying event for the 2012 Olympics will be the 2011 World Cup in Japan. There are also world Olympic qualification tournaments in May 2012. A 2012 Olympic appearance in London would be the Canadian men’s first since 1992.

“It’s definitely the major goal of everyone here,” said team veteran Daniel Lewis, of Oakville. He added, “For me personally, I’m here because I love playing every day.”

Because there’s no pro league at home, most of the Canadians play in European leagues of various levels throughout the winter. This past April, Hoag led the ACH Volley team based in Bled, Slovenia, to the final four in the Champions League. It’s a five-month tournament that determines the top professional volleyball squad in Europe.

“It was kind of a Cinderella story,” said Lewis, a key player on the Bled team. “The team had never got past the first round. He took us to a fourth-place finish. We were playing in front of 14,000 fans.”

And there’s the difference: in Canada, hockey games get those crowds. Volleyball doesn’t. So Canadians don’t tend to grow up with the dream of becoming a pro volleyball player - even though these guys are comparable to NHL players in terms of their skill level.

“We produce some pretty good athletes,” said Hoag. “What’s lacking is exposure to the highest level. It’s a tough sport to learn, because of the mastery of skills.”

Lewis, 34, has played in Spain, Switzerland, Poland, France and Slovenia throughout his career. Hoag will move from Slovenia to coach in Turkey this winter. The developing athletes stay at the national training centre in Gatineau year-round.

Hoag doesn’t sugar coat the challenge the men face in trying to qualify for London.

“It’s still a very strong possibility,” said Hoag. “But in the next couple of years, we will need to improve quite a bit.”


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