We have to flip the calendar pages all the way back to January 2020 to revisit the last time the Men’s National Team was on the pitch for an international match. It was a late January morning in Santiago, Chile and the team played a test-match against Argentina.
Fourteen months later, the team was back on the pitch, playing test matches against France and Belgium. Although the world has changed, the familiar feeling of stepping onto the international stage remains the same. Gordon Johnston, veteran MNT defender, emphasized how energizing it was to be back in the Red and White in an authentic game-setting.
“It was awesome to back on the pitch. It’s been so long for us, training, working on our skills and structure. It was just so nice to actually play against another international side,” he said. “It felt really good to get back on the field and feel like we’re making progress towards where we want to be in Tokyo.”
Johnston and the team arrived home this week and immediately entered quarantine. It was a stark reminder of the challenges that lay ahead for the team. The unique and challenging experience of the last year cannot be overstated.
While in Belgium, the team trained every day and played test matches against 12th-ranked France, Belgium U21 and the world number-one Belgian National Team. As a relatively small hockey-playing nation, Team Canada already has an underdog mentality. Couple that with the isolation over the past year and the lack of travel options, it’s no doubt the Red Caribou felt a little behind the ball.
“It’s almost impossible to simulate the level that you find in an international match. To recreate that at home is just not possible,” he said. “The good thing is now we have lessons that we can take from our trip and bring them back into our daily training environment.”
Canada faces world-ranked number one Belgium in a test match. Photos: Emma Van Mol.
Red Caribou Head Coach Pasha Gademan highlighted the fact that this trip was not only for the on-field play, but also for learning how to travel and compete in a COVID world. While on tour, the team was restricted to the hockey pitch, the hotel rooms and specified meeting and workout areas.
“We needed experience traveling in this new reality that we are currently living in. We need the staff [and players] to learn the protocols and how to create a safe environment while playing in a competitive setting,” Gademan said.
Gademan, hired in December, traveled to Vancouver to work with the team for a month in the new year. This training tour featured his first set of matches behind the Canadian bench. He said he and Andre Henning are fitting in well with the team culture and they are ironing out the rest on the go.
“We get a sense of how the team handles themselves on tour. At the same time, the players get a sense of how we work and how our ideas and analysis fits,” he said. “The biggest win for me is that we all know each other better now. And I think it means better results will come.”
As Gademan said, it was a new reality for everyone, and he believes the team and staff handled it well. As far as the actual hockey, Gademan isn’t putting much stock in wins and losses at this juncture. Instead, he’s focusing on getting this version of the Red Caribou to learn the new style of play and get back up to game speed.
“We were experimenting with different structures and styles. In reviewing the video of our matches, I’m really happy with the progress we made,” Gademan said. “We can really start focusing our energy on the elements that need our attention.”
Zach Coombs played his first official Cap in the Canadian net against Belgium. Congratulations Zach!
With only 100 days left until Canada’s first match at the Tokyo Games, both staff and player alike are doing everything they can to prepare themselves. According to both Johnston and Gademan, the team needs more international matches, period.
In the current environment, and with travel still restricted, this poses the number one challenge. No matter how or when they access those preparation matches, Johnston knows that the team will be ready for the challenge.
“It’s extremely important to play games against good sides,” he said. “In playing against Belgium, we get to measure ourselves against the best in the world. It sets us up to understand exactly how to prepare ourselves for the Olympics knowing that every game is against a good team.”
The team has been focused on remaining flexible all year. That won’t change. As Gademan and the management staff look for training and competition options, the team must remain flexible. Gademan expects his team to be ready for whatever comes next as they prepare for the Olympic Games.
“The guys are training and preparing for what might be the biggest tournament of their lives. They know the urgency; as do I,” he said.
Field Hockey Canada is celebrating the 100 Days milestone by launching the Road to Tokyo campaign. This initiative emanates quick on the heels of the international announcement that foreign spectators will not be allowed to attend the Games in-person. Field Hockey Canada’s goal is to provide the best possible access to the tournament and athletes before, during and after the Tokyo Olympics. The campaign webpage will allow friends, family and fans to join the Red Caribou on the Road to Tokyo.