Northern exposure

BILL LANKHOF, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 8:06 AM ET

Mark Heese is the Johnny Appleseed of beach volleyball.

Through 17 seasons on the world tour, Heese helped pioneer the sport in Canada. Now, in retirement, he intends to grow the sport coast to coast.

Heese has formed Maximum Reach, a company to promote the game, and he has plans to start a Canadian tour by next summer. But this week, his biggest competition might come from polar bears trying to steal his ball.

OK, maybe that polar bear thing is an exaggeration but even Heese admits his five-day trip to the Northwest Territories is, well, edgy. Beach volleyball and Arctic tundra don't exactly go together like peanut butter and jelly.

"It's kind of got the Jamaican bobsled angle to it, there's no doubt about that. But we used to say that about beach volleyball in Canada when we first started playing on the international circuit. The sport is finding its way up there," says Heese, who is leaving today for a five-day clinic that will take him to Yellowknife, Hay River and Tulita.

Heese has hooked up with volleyball outfitter Overkill and equipment supplier Canuck Stuff to promote beach volleyball. "I could go back to teaching phys ed but I still feel a passion for the game and I'd like to give back some of the knowledge I picked up the past 17 years playing for Canada," Heese says.

Even if he has got to do it with a bush plane next door to the Ice Berg Hotel.

Players from Yellowknife have been competing in the national championships "the last couple years," Heese says. Of course, the game is a little more difficult when temperatures force you to play wearing mittens. Heese might have to show up in shorts -- and long johns. "It's got a bit of a novelty to it," he says about the ribbing he and Canada's most remote beach volleyball clubs are taking.

"Actually, I've never been there and I'm excited about going. Basically, I'm spreading the word about the sport. The media seems to be getting a taste for it up there. I don't know how often Olympic medallists come to visit but they seem to be getting a kick out of it."

A bronze medallist at the Atlanta Games, Heese has been concerned about the direction of the game in Canada. Internationally, Canada's ranking has plummeted. Heese blames the drop on the demise of the national pro tour in 2000.

"We had a domestic tour start in the late 1980s and it was the perfect setting for our athletes to develop. We were competing every weekend with sponsors and support. Canada had a world tour qualifying event and I do not believe it was a coincidence that we had two men's teams and one women's team ranked in the top 10 in the world," he says.

In 2000, Canada had three teams at the Olympics. "That was our peak," Heese says. Then the Canadian tour was abandoned for lack of sponsorship. In 2004, just one team qualified for the Olympics and in Beijing, Canada failed to qualify.

"Our international success has started to dwindle," says Heese, who spent three months this winter trying to resurrect the Canadian tour. He figures it'll cost about $225,000, if he can get provincial volleyball organizations on-side. If he has to start from the ground up, it will cost closer to $1 million. Either way, he believes it will get done by next summer.

"For that you could have five or six events across the country, a nice, little tour."

Bears thinking, right?


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