You've gotta hand it to 'em

DEREK VAN DIEST -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:34 AM ET

It's the simplest of games.

All that's required is a wall and a ball.

The best players in the world have converged in Edmonton and Sherwood Park to take part in the 2006 Waterford Crystal World Handball Championships starting today.

"This is something that we've been working on for about five years," said John Kopeck, the co-chair of the event. "The initial bid process that we did was done in 2001 in Vancouver. We made a presentation to the Canadian Handball Association and we put in a bid to be the official host for Canada. There was a lot of work on the front end that was completed to make this event possible for Edmonton."

10-DAY EVENT

Over 700 players representing 10 countries are taking part in the 10-day event. The championships feature one-wall and four-wall competitions. Matches are taking place at the Sherwood Park Arena, University of Alberta and Mayfield Inn Athletic Centre.

"It's really a sport that people don't see every day, so this is a great opportunity for us to showcase it on a local level and get some attention to it that we normally wouldn't get," Kopeck said. "Just the fact that we have world-class players, the number of people are going to be here, it's just a great opportunity for us to stage a world event and just get some exposure for our sport."

According to organizers of the event, handball dates back over 4,000 years. The modern game originated in Ireland. Irish immigrants brought the game to the United States, where it spread to the rest of the world.

The first world championships were held in 1964 in New York and take place every three years.

"Handball has been in Canada in the East, mainly in the Maritimes and the Toronto area since the middle of the last century," said Pat Brennan, vice president of the World Handball Council, who now resides in Sherwood Park. "It's fluctuated up and down with the number of players playing. At one time we were an accredited sport under Sports Canada and we got funding. Because of that we were able to run Canadian national championships regularly.

"However, we were one of the small sports that were cut off from funding about 10 years ago and we've struggled a bit since then, because we have no way to develop funds for facilities."

The national handball association managed to survive.

And by bringing the world championships to Edmonton, they hope to introduce the game to a new generation.

CANADIAN CONTINGENT

Leading the Canadian contingent is Lisa Fraser-Gilmore of Winnipeg. Fraser-Gilmore, along with partner Jessica Gawley are the defending world doubles champions. Fraser-Gilmore has also won five U.S. Open singles championships and eight national titles.

"I think overall this is a tremendous opportunity for the city of Edmonton to profile itself on an international level," said Kopeck. "Edmonton and the surrounding communities have a tremendous reputation of putting on international events with quality. They always seem to be the best events.

"We worked extremely hard on a local level to make sure the experience for these people is a world-class experience and I think the economic impact is going to be great for the city, the province and everybody involved."

Organizers expect the championships to generate $2.2 million for the local economy.

The final of the women's four-wall single event take place on Aug. 9, while the men's final goes on Aug. 12.

"We're looking forward to it," Kopeck said. "Our biggest goal right now is to make sure that people that are travelling here internationally experience what Edmonton is all about."


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