Featured Photo: FIH/World Sport Pics
From the COVID shutdown to the Junior Pan American Championships being postponed; from finishing fourth at JPAC and missing out on a Junior World Cup berth, to getting a late bid; from travel visas arriving late, to finally stepping onto the field in Bhubaneswar; this team has been through a gauntlet of challenges and hurdles.
It has been an emotional and sensational ride over the past two years for the Junior Men’s National Team. According to head coach, Indy Sehmbi, through humility and resiliency, this team has made the most of their experience. They arrive home in Canada with a 13th place World Cup finish, the highest finish of any junior men’s team in the past 35 years.
“As I reflect on the event, the word that jumps to my mind is resilience,” Sehmbi said. “This is a group that has just taken every opportunity and done their best with it. We’ve had obstacles along the way, and just to get through all that. This is a resilient bunch.”
It was by no means a dream-start for Team Canada as they dropped the opener against Poland 1-0. They then recorded two consecutive lopsided losses against France and India who were eventual semi-finalists. It was in the fourth quarter against South Africa — Canada’s first classification opponent — when Team Canada truly came alive.
The team’s resurrection in the final two games of the tournament, speaks to the resiliency and bounce-back DNA that is woven into this team’s identity. Alex Bird, stalwart defender for the Junior National Team, said the team was disappointed after pool-play but quickly shifted their focus and played some of their best hockey in the final games.
“We pressed the reset button, and just simply focused on finishing the best we could,” Bird said. “That fourth quarter [against South Africa] was a piece of hockey that set us up for the next two games. We know we were a team that can score and play really good hockey.”
Team Canada won their last two games of the JWC to finish 13th. Photos/FIH
Canada rose to the World Cup stage and defeated Pan American Rivals USA and Chile in their final two fixtures. According to Bird, the wins were made extra sweet because of the Pan American results earlier in the year.
“We have a rivalry with both teams. We felt we were the better team at Pan Ams, but it didn’t show on the scoreboard. Going into each game we wanted to prove to all of Pan American field hockey that we are the better team,” Bird said. “After the Chile game, I don’t think I’ve ever seen another team celebrate 13th place so hard.”
TEAM CANADA RESULTS
Canada vs Poland 0-1 LOSS
Canada vs India 1-13 LOSS
Canada vs France 1-11 LOSS
Canada vs South Africa 3-7 LOSS
Canada vs USA 4-0 WIN
Canada vs Chile 2-1 WIN
That 13th place finish stands as one of the best finishes for a junior men’s team in the past 40 years. Canada placed 13th of 14 teams in 1985 and 8th of 11 teams in 1982. Sehmbi, who also coached the 2016 National Junior Team, said he doesn’t put too much stock in the historical results and how they compare. For him, every junior cycle and group is so different, and that final win to capture 13th was a moment that represented the successful navigation of the challenges over the past several years.
“This team was a pretty young group, with limited senior experience, we had a larger training group, we had a bit more transience, but with that, this group is more diverse,” Sehmbi said. “To compare finishing results to any other year doesn’t do justice to anyone. This group was able to perform their best under really challenging circumstances.”
According to Sehmbi, this year’s iteration of Team Canada was the most provincially diverse group to his memory. Four provinces were represented including Ontario, BC, Alberta and Quebec. Bird is a part of the five-player contingent from Quebec. Bird’s father, Ian, a Canadian field hockey Olympian has been driving field hockey’s growth in Chelsea, QC, for the last decade. For Alex, representing Quebec with his club and provincial teammates had an extra special feeling.
“It feels pretty amazing to be there with the Quebec group. To feel somewhat like a pioneer with my teammates,” Bird said. “If we can continue to grow the sport in Quebec, it’s good for the sport, good for field hockey in Canada.”
Celebrations following Canada’s 13th place finish. Photos/FIH
Bird added that he enjoys playing with the best players of his age group from around the country, noting that many of them have faced each other at national championships over the past few years. They are players who are provincial rivals but share the national pride for Canada.
While the men’s team celebrates a 13th place finish, there is also the fleeting reminder that for many of these athletes, junior hockey is done. Sehmbi said that having the opportunity to play at the Pan American Championships and the Junior World Cup is vital experience as these athletes will vie for senior men’s spot in the coming years.
“Definitely playing in an environment that really values hockey, helps build that high-level experience,” Sehmbi said. “These guys now have this experience of playing really good games against high-level competition. Honestly, the ability to bounce back after some challenging games and play their best hockey, that really showed a lot.”
Sehmbi noted that simply the opportunity to compete at this level isn’t lost on him or the athletes. He said the young men often mentioned the fact that the Junior Women — despite winning the Pan American Championship — wouldn’t get the opportunity to compete this month.
“Honestly, we just felt so fortunate to even have the opportunity to play,” Sehmbi said. “The guys said in meetings multiple times that they wanted to honour our women’s team. That’s a group that won their Pan Ams but they didn’t get to play, and yet here we were getting a full tournament in. We kept revisiting just how fortunate we were.”
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