Photo Credit: Blair Shier
Professional athletes know firsthand how much dedication and commitment is needed to play and compete at the highest levels of sport. Setbacks and challenges along the way are almost guaranteed, but it is safe to say that no one could have anticipated the immense threat of COVID-19 and what followed as a declaration of a global pandemic on March 11, 2020.
Within the following days, European hockey leagues were suspended and presumably cancelled for the remainder of the season. Other leagues like the NHL and MLB followed suit and live sport, along with the entire world, was put on pause. Hectic is one word to describe it when everything began unravelling, but as current events show, it is not as easy to put things back together.
With the phrase “return to play” tossed around frequently as competition resumes and new guidelines are introduced, there is still uncertainty that surrounds what the new normal will look like. However, it does signal one thing: hope.
In March, Shanlee Johnston and the rest of the Women’s National Team were put on flights out of Belgium where they were training as a group at the time. Anxiety filled the air as many thought about the upcoming months and how to keep the momentum gained throughout the year. Among virtual workouts and strength and conditioning programs, the team did its best to stay connected while apart.
After what seemed like a four-month long waiting game, training resumed but not without its many changes.
“The biggest difference for us is not being able to do competitive drills,” Johnston said. “One of the main focuses in 2019 was that we just played games and it was just any sort of competition. When we first came back to training, none of that was allowed—it was all non-contact.”
Only those residing in Vancouver are practising together while players from Victoria or various cities in Ontario are following provincial guidelines and training in their respective environments, which has posed a challenge for the team given travel restrictions. Kaitlyn Williams, who has kept herself busy with home workouts and outdoor runs, is just grateful to be back onto the pitch.
“It definitely wasn’t the normal training environment we were used to…groups had to be small and we had to maintain two meters distance throughout the training sessions,” Williams described. “The hardest thing about this whole situation has been the uncertainty so to return to play means I can finally get back to what I love to do and it makes life seem a bit more normal.”
After narrowly missing out on Olympic qualification last November, the women have shifted their focus to the 2022 FIH Hockey World Cup. With high expectations for themselves and newly appointed Head Coach Andrew Wilson, they are eager to compete to reach that next level.
“We all want to qualify for the World Cup really, really badly,” Johnston said. “All of our decisions right now, all of our motivation kind of comes from that. We’re not just here to play pickup games and to just get caps. It’s about preparing ourselves for 2022 and whatever comes next.”
Men’s NextGEN Director Hugh Purvis remembers his last training session before everything began shutting down in Canada. He, David Carter, and Mark Pearson were on the field discussing the growing concerns around COVID-19, recognizing that it was only a matter of time before hard decisions around practice and the Olympics were to be made.
“It was intimidating to think about the short term and long-term effects for the team,” said Purvis. “I hadn’t anticipated it but that small individual session [in March] would be our last for four months and also our last with Paul Bundy as Head Coach…The whole period was mentally fatiguing for all in the program.”
Without any clarity surrounding dates and programming, as well as the outside world, it was difficult to find the motivation to play, never mind maintain it. After the departure of Paul Bundy in the spring, Purvis, with the help of dedicated supporting staff, was tasked with leading the men’s national program through the following months into the fall.
When training was finally greenlit in mid-July, on-field sessions were limited to eight people per half of the pitch referred to as “pods” with no contract drills or gameplay scenarios. The focus was on the basics while team arrival and departures were and continue to be tightly monitored. Oliver Scholfield remains optimistic about the return to competition ahead of Tokyo 2020, which has been guaranteed to run in 2021, though are aware of any setbacks that may arise.
“We can only work on what we can control,” Scholfield said. “We have confidence in what everyone is doing above us to prioritize our safety and also our success at the Games. We’re preparing fully as if they are going to go ahead, but next year, in terms of logistics, is yet to be determined.”
Under new Head Coach André Henning, the team is confident in what awaits ahead of them. After a long summer of uncertainty, it comes as a sigh of relief for those anxious to resume training and building toward the Olympics. However, it is important to keep everything in perspective.
“We’ve had to wait an extra year, but at the end of the day, the pandemic is still at large and people are still dying from it. It’s a very serious situation, and you do always have to keep reminding yourself that things aren’t necessarily back to normal and there…[are] bigger things at play,” added Scholfield.
Despite challenges and setbacks, Field Hockey Canada is driving forward safely with its high performance programs. The preparation and lead up will look different this year, but both senior national teams have major competitions firmly in their headlights.