June 18, 2010
Unlike Canada’s women on ice, this team isn’t favoured or feared, but many young athletes are up for the challenge to change that.
Anna Kozniuk says she was up to the challenge of trying to crack the blue-line of Canada’s hugely successful women’s hockey team, the gold medallists at the 2010 Olympics. She just wasn’t convinced there would be enough of a challenge left if she did make it. And so the sturdy, dark-haired 17-year-old from North Vancouver has abandoned her skates in favour of running shoes to play for a Canadian women’s hockey team that hasn’t qualified for the Olympics since 1992.
That’s hockey as in the field variety and Kozniuk is an emerging talent as a defender for a young Canadian squad hoping to forge an international breakthrough in a sport where the competition is far tougher than in ice hockey. "I was invited to the under-18 squad [camp] and made it through the first couple of rounds," says Kozniuk of her prospects on ice. "Then I decided [field hockey] is the team I wanted to stick with. "I got ridiculed a bit, but I’ve enjoyed it. San Diego kind of sealed the deal for the choice, knowing that I excelled."
It was at a six-team World Cup qualifier in Southern California in March where Kozniuk was selected best young talent. Canada went 2-4 and finished fourth as Korea grabbed the sole qualifying spot available for the worlds in Argentina in August.
Canada is looking ahead to the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi in October and is taking on India this week in a four-game series at Surrey and UBC. Kozniuk says she likes the speed, intensity and creativeness of top-flight field hockey. And she sees more competitive countries than in ice hockey. "Look at the score of the game," she said after India, currently ranked No. 13 in the world, edged the 19th-ranked Canadians 3-2 Tuesday night at Tamanawis Park in Surrey. "It’s tighter. In the [2010 Winter] Olympics, it was Canada one way. And I heard one team for the Olympic qualifiers got beat 80-0. "It was actually 82-0 for Slovakia over Bulgaria. And Canada beat Slovakia 18-0 in the opening game in Vancouver, four years after dispatching Italy 16-0 in a game at the Turin Olympics.
Clearly, Kozniuk likes the challenge of trying to get the field hockey squad back into the Olympic picture. It’s going to be a daunting task; in the last three Commonwealth Games, Canada has won just two of 13 matches. And at the Pan American Games, which awards Olympic qualification to the winner, Canada didn’t even medal in 2003 or 2007. "The team is young, so we must play more matches against people that put you under pressure," says head coach Louis Mendonca. "All three goals [Tuesday] came from pressure. Our backfield is very, very young. Anna is only 17. Ali Lee is older, but she’s only got about 20 [international] games. Diana Roemer has only got about 30. That’s very young compared to international standards. "Normally, you must have people with 100 games to be successful, to see pressure, to understand pressure. It’s absolutely crucial to get more experience … because our domestic league is not as strong."
Field Hockey Canada’s newly appointed senior technical leader, Shiaz Virjee, a longtime men’s coach at UBC, says skill development at an earlier age and more commitment to training and fitness are also needed. Another issue is playing fields. The Tamanawis Park field and one at UBC are water-base artificial turf fields, the kind used in elite-level international competition. They are currently the only ones in Canada. "The skill level that you need on this, which is a faster game, sharper skills, you just can’t emulate that [on other artificial fields]," says Virjee. "Now with the 2015 Pan American Games coming to Toronto, there’s a commitment to building those fields [in southeastern Ontario] and that will really help our programs in the East. If you look now, most of our top players are from B.C."
NCAA university commitments for top players has also hurt the women’s program. Promising young midfielder Shannon Elmitt (University of California Berkley) and forward Cyrstal Poland (Northeastern) won’t be available for the Commonwealth Games."Right now, one of my roles is trying to find a way to encourage [U. S.-bound girls] to stay in Canada or to find a way of bringing them back for competition to join our team," said Virjee. Kozniuk, who is being courted by several U.S. and Canadian universities, has decided to postpone school for at least a year so she can be a part of the Commonwealth Games team.
"Anna is very poised, quite composed," says Mendonca. "She just needs to see more. We plucked her out of a junior program, where nobody can even match her skills, to the big leagues. "By the end of all the hockey this summer, we’ll no doubt have a mature player at 60 or 70 caps instead of 100."
Canada has a series scheduled against 16th-ranked Chile later this month and is close to tying up a visit by No. 22 Malaysia, one of the teams in its pool at New Delhi. For more information on the Women’s National Field Hockey Team, please click on the link below.
Story by: Gary Kingston, Vancouver Sun