Going to the Olympic Games is often a once in a lifetime opportunity for anyone who is lucky enough to be a part of the experience. For a group of Canadian men’s field hockey players, the chance to go to the Games with a sibling presents an even more unique possibility.
The Canadian senior Men’s National Team currently features three sets of brothers: Stephen and Brenden Bissett, Sukhi and Balraj Panesar; and Iain and John Smythe. All are vying for selection to the Canadian team headed to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil this August.
With more than thirty athletes competing for sixteen spots, cracking the squad as an individual would be an accomplishment in itself. And the brothers know that making the team as siblings might be a long-shot, but it’s not impossible.
As rare is it would be, it wouldn’t be the first time Canadian field hockey brothers represented Canada at the same Games.
At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China, Peter and Rob Short both suited up in the red-and-white.
Brothers Harbajan and Ranjeet Rai represented Canada at back-to-back Olympics, in 1984 and 1988 respectively, albeit separately.
Here is a look at the three duos looking to etch their names in the history books in 2016 and what it would mean to them to represent Canada at the Olympics as brothers.
Stephen and Brenden are two of three Bissett brothers who have suited up for Canada internationally. They – along with brother Matthew (Stephen’s twin) – have combined for 66 senior international matches played for Canada.
“When I was growing up, I used to always play two years up on their team,” Brenden says. “I think that kind of helped develop my skills at an early age.”
Up until recently, however, Brenden was the only one representing Canada internationally. With Matthew’s last game coming two years ago, and Stephen not a part of the program, Brenden was the lone brother carrying on the tradition.
After some time away, Stephen returned to the program in January and travelled with the Men’s National Team to South Africa, where they officially kicked off the Olympic year.
“I actually really enjoy having him around,” Brenden adds. “We’re also competitive with each other. If he’s lifting a lot weight in the gym, I’m going to try and lift that amount as well. We kind of push each other.”
Little brother Brendan has been a rising star on the team over the last 18 months, having played in the previous two tournaments: the 2015 Hockey World League Final and the 2015 Pan American Games, where Canada took silver and officially qualified for the 2016 Olympics.
He’s hoping he can share future on-field success – namely going to the Olympics – with at least one of his brothers.
“At one point the three of us were on the Junior team and we all used to play midfield,” he says. “It was be a Bissett mid-line. Hopefully we can bring that back for the Olympics, with a couple Bissetts on the team.”
The Panesar brothers hail from Surrey, British Columbia and have been integral parts of the Men’s National Program at the Senior and Junior level over the last year.
The two are coming off successful individual years in which they both received accolades recognizing their performances. Balraj was named Field Hockey Canada’s Junior Men’s Player of the Year, while Sukhi was a nominee for the International Hockey Federation’s Rising Star of the Year.
“At the age he is now, he’s definitely better than I was,” says older brother Sukhi, who has 58 senior international matches to his name. “He’s a steady player and he’s much better defensively than I am, which is good.”
One of the youngest players training with the Senior squad, Balraj has an outside shot at making the Olympic team. And he if does, it wouldn’t be the first time the Panesars represent Canada together at a major international event.
The brothers, who are three years apart in age, represented Canada at the 2014 Junior World Cup. Balraj was in his first year as a junior and Sukhi, the older of the two, was in his third.
“He was always asking me for advice and help,” Sukhi recalls. “Just trying to figure out what it was like being a part of the Junior program.”
Last year, they played in a senior match together for the first time in New Zealand.
Having played together on the United Brother’s team in Surrey growing up, now they are both well on their way long careers together with the Canadian National Team.
“You know your brother pretty well, compared to the rest of your teammates,” Sukhi says. “So it’s easy if you need someone to talk to or anything in the car ride to and from practice.”
The brothers Smythe are also part of a trio of brothers. While they all grew up playing for the Vancouver Hawks club team, older brother Geoff was drawn more to football in the end. It was his two years brothers, Iain, 30, and John, 26, who went on to play field hockey internationally.
“I think a lot of our aggression on the field and hard-nosed attitude comes from living with brothers and all boys,” says John, who has played 35 senior international matches for Canada. “We were always wrestling and play fighting and probably real fighting and all that. That, I think, transferred into our sports life.”
That dogged determination has led Iain to play in 111 international matches for Canada. As one of the oldest players on the team, going to the Olympics is Iain sole focus as he nears the end of his career.
“I’m more or less focusing on my own play and I think he is as well, to be selected and be on that team,” he says. “It would be amazing if we both went but at the same time, I can’t really focus on that. I’ve got to focus on my own game.”
After starting his international career at the Junior level, John took some time away from the National Program while dealing with Crohn’s disease. After two surgeries and seeing his older brother flourish with the National Team during that team, he was inspired to return.
“Growing up I always looked to him for inspiration,” John says. “All the success he was having, that lit a little bit of a fire underneath me and gave me the opportunity to go for it again.”
John has been back in the National fold since 2011 and, given what he saw growing up, his older brother Iain isn’t surprised.
“He’s got that young attitude where you don’t really give your older brother respect, and fight dirty and play hard,” Iain says. “Any chance he would to get one up on me he would take.”
Now, as they always have, they battle as hard as they can on the field, in training and in matches, for the opportunity to represent Canada at the same time on the world’s biggest sporting stage at the Olympics.
“I think it would actually mean more to our parents,” John says. “They’ve watched us grow from such a young age with field hockey to where we are now and they’re so proud.”
Safe to assume that’s something each pair of brothers has in common.