Canada defeating India last spring to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Canada’s heartbreaking, last minute defeat in the 2010 Commonwealth Games to put them out of contention. Canada’s opening match with “healthy rival,’ New Zealand. Canada sniffing out a podium spot for the first time in team history.
We don’t have to look far to hunt down a good story line for the upcoming Commonwealth Games. Canada’s Men’s National Team (world number 11) opens the tournament against 9th-ranked New Zealand, a team they have a “healthy rivalry” with according to Canada’s head coach, Paul Bundy.
Field Hockey fans across the world will remember Canada’s thrilling victory over the Black Sticks in the 2015 World League Semi-Final, clinching their spot in the 2016 Rio Olympics. In a pool that also features Australia (1), Scotland (23), and South Africa (15), both Canada and New Zealand know the importance of the opening match. Coach Bundy is prioritizing a fast start from his team, knowing that at this competition, a single loss can make the difference between a medal hope and consolation.
“For us, it starts in that first minute of the tournament. It’s absolutely fundamental that we start well,” said Bundy. “That first game against New Zealand is going to be a great game. A good start there can set us up in the best position moving forward in the competition.”
The cutthroat nature of the Commonwealth Games adds importance to every match. The top two teams from each pool advance to semi-finals and the remaining teams are eliminated from contention. On the men’s side, Canada has never made the semifinals at the Commonwealth Games. When asked if he had an outcome goal for the team over the next two weeks, Bundy said it’s more about executing the game plan and performing well on demand.
“We have a performance culture within our group. It’s about the process and being able to win when it counts,” Bundy said. “It doesn’t have to be stated to the team, but we know we want to put ourselves in a position to win a medal.”
2017 was built largely around qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. 2018 is built around executing at two major competitions (Gold Coast 2018 and World Cup) and keeping a longer-term eye on 2020 Olympic qualification.
As is customary from the September – April European Club season, Canada’s national team has off-shored several players abroad in order to get more playing experience. In addition, the entirety of the Junior Development Squad was overseas in March. As a result, the past month of National Team preparation featured a smaller group of athletes. Bundy pointed out the obvious challenges about training with a smaller group but said sometimes it can be an advantage.
“When the training group gets smaller, often the quality goes up,” Bundy said. “You can get more repetitions and the coaches can give very specific feedback.”
In order to work out any lack of cohesion, the team has already arrived in Australia and had two training sessions and two warm-up games. Bundy said in order to start sharply against New Zealand in the opening game, they needed some good training sessions and games before the competition.
Canada has no shortage of experience on this roster. With an average age of 27.5 years old and an average cap count of 114, they lead the tournament in both categories. Mark Pearson is one of Canada’s most experienced players and will be suiting up in his fourth Commonwealth Games in his career. Pearson said he has a really good feeling about this team’s chances.
“We’re feeling really confident going in. We’ve had a good 16-months and over the past two years, we’ve had a lot of consistency,” Pearson said. “The core of the group has stayed the same.”
Just to name a few, the Canadian roster includes defensive stalwarts Scott Tupper and Gordon Johnston, the steady midfield presence of Pearson and Sukhi Panesar and an all-out attacking unit featuring Floris van Son and Keegan Pereira. They have consistency in goal as well with veteran David Carter and Antoni Kindler.
In total, the 2018 Commonwealth Games roster features 11 players returning from the 2016 Rio Olympics and 16 returners from last year’s World League Semi-Final tournament. That type of consistency and experience can go a long way in major games.
“We have good experience playing with each other,” Pearson said. “…and we seem to have a nice blend of all the attributes you want in a team.”
It’s that consistency start to finish that Bundy is expecting from the team.
“Obviously we want to start well,” Bundy said. “But we also want to have that consistency throughout the event. And then we want to finish well. Finishing tournaments well is something we want to have bred into our culture. Those final days are the ones that really define you.”
Catch Team Canada take on New Zealand live on Thursday April 5, at 630pm PST on DAZN sports streaming website.
Photos: Canada takes on Wales in a pre-tournament matchup (Yan Huckendubler/Photo)