Future bright for Canadian field hockey

Team Canada huddles up before their semifinal game versus the Team USA Wednesday in Mexico. Canada...

Team Canada huddles up before their semifinal game versus the Team USA Wednesday in Mexico. Canada lost 4-2 and will play for a bronze medal. (Getty Images)

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:06 AM ET

GUADALAJARA - There are probably times when the Canadian women’s field hockey team would just love to strap on some blades and kick some butt. They are Canadians after all.

But field hockey is played, shockingly enough, on a field. Actually, on turf. And though Canadian women generally rule the world in ice hockey, on terra firma it’s a different story.

Canada is ranked 20th in the world, and in order to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics here at the Pan Am Games, they had to win the gold medal. And to do that, they had to get past the U.S. in the semifinals on Wednesday afternoon at the sun-splashed Pan American Hockey Stadium.

It didn’t happen. There were no fairy tales or Cinderella stories.

The Americans are ranked 10th in the world and they looked the part.

The Canadians played well and hard but made too many sloppy defensive plays and lost 4-2, and will now play for the bronze.

“We’re pretty disappointed,” said forward Kate Gillis, the daughter of Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis, who flew into Guadalajara for the semifinal match. “But we fought hard and we were really hoping to win a medal at this tournament, so we have to regroup for the next game. And we’re coming home with the bronze.”

A bronze would be good. Canada hasn’t even qualified for a semifinals at the Pan Ams since 1999.

But more important than possibly winning a bronze here, Team Canada has another chance to qualify for the London Olympics. They’ll be in one more qualifying tournament sometime in the spring. That’s the good news. The bad news is, winning that event won’t be much easier than winning this event. And if the Canadian women’s field hockey team fails to qualify for London next spring, it will extend this team’s streak of not qualifying for the Olympics to five straight Games. The last time the Canadian team qualified for an Olympics was in Barcelona in 1992.

Now, you might think, what’s the big deal? It’s field hockey, we’re not good at hockey unless it’s played on frozen water. But the thing is, there was a time when the Canadian women’s field hockey team was one of the best teams in the world, and one of the best national teams, in any sport, in Canada. At one time, people actually talked about this team.

In the early and mid-1980’s, under legendary South-African born coach Marina van der Merwe, Canada was a world force, and when they captured the silver medal at the 1983 World Cup, it was front-page news. At least in the sports section.

Now they’re ranked 20th in the world and haven’t qualified for a World Cup since 1994. The mighty has fallen and for almost three decades, they haven’t been able to get back up.

But, if you peruse the rosters here at the Pan Am Games, you’ll notice that, of the top teams, Canada is the youngest. This is a very young squad, with a lot of talent and, what’s more, there are more turf fields being built across the country all the time and that bodes well for the future. Head coach Louis Mendonca certainly believes his squad is on the precipice of greatness, if not in 2012 Olympics, then at the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.

“Our average age here is about 21.8 and our average caps are about 50 caps. At an Olympics, you usually have 100 caps (per team) and an average age of 26 or 27,” said Mendonca, who stacked this Pan Am Games team with young players. “We must give some of these young players an opportunity to learn.”

Mendonca is not ruling out winning the last chance tournament and qualifying for 2014, but the real goal of this team is down the road, in 2014 and 2016.

Gillis, a Kingston native who played a strong game, said the national squad has improved by leaps and bounds just in the last year or so.

“We’ve really changed,” she said. “If you look at this tournament, we’ve been scoring goals, moving with the ball, and have been more dynamic in our passing and receiving, and I think that’s really opened up space for us.”

The next step for Team Canada is to start to beat the major powers, like the U.S. They’re getting close.

“We don’t have a lot of experience like the U.S.,” added the 22-year-old. “A bunch of them have gone to an Olympics already. But we’re learning. And I think once we start rolling, we’re going to be a team that can really fight anyone.”


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