Feature Image: Emma Van Mol Photography
Going on training tours and playing practice matches is common practice when preparing for major tournaments. With that in mind, there has been nothing common about the 2021 season for the Men’s National Team.
At the start of the new year, it appeared there may be no international travel. But adhering to rigorous caution and COVID-19 guidelines, the Men’s National Team was able to travel to Europe for a training tour in April. The experience was unique with rapid tests, masks, and quarantines. But, it proved to be safe, and set a precedent for the team to be able to travel and play safely.
Over the last two weeks, the team traveled again to Belgium and Germany to train full-time and play practice matches against international teams. For forward, Matt Sarmento, it felt like a return to the norm in some ways.
“The team is used to being on tour in preparation for major tournaments, so this really felt like we were back,” Sarmento said. “Especially after such an extended pause in competition then getting that first tour under our belts. It really felt good to get back and get competitive games.”
Sarmento admits, due to all the regulations and guidelines, it isn’t the exact same. But the important part is to get those matches against strong sides. The team played against France, Belgium, and Germany; all ranked inside the top-12 in the world.
“The access to competition is crucial to our preparations, even more so that we have a new coaching staff this year,” Sarmento said. “Nothing compares to the competition environment. Considering everything, it’s been a luxury to face a bunch of top-10 teams in the last few months.”
For Head Coach Pasha Gademan, the priority has been simply getting that vital competition exposure. From there, he and his staff are working to nail down the style of play that fits this team and player group. The original plan was to play Argentina twice prior to playing France and Belgium, but with Argentina pulling out due to travel restrictions, the team was forced to adapt.
“Quite simply, I’m happy that we got to play competitive matches against good teams,” he said. “You can train as much as you want but you never really know how you are doing until you’re tested in a game situation. The game scenarios expose your stronger points and your weaker points.”
Canada played against Belgium, France and Germany during their May tour to Europe. (Photos: Emma Van Mol)
For Gademan, these training tours are about focussing on the process. He and the MNT coaching staff build on the strengths and work to mitigate gaps. The tours are about perfecting the structures that will have the most success in Tokyo. The practice matches haven’t been all about the wins and losses, but as a competitor, he confessed that he feels the game pressure just the same.
“I’ll admit that it definitely felt nice to get that win against France,” he said. “And then at the same time, we had some tough losses where we can expect more from ourselves. After a rough start to the tour, I think the team responded well. Now, it’s about how we can use our performances to set ourselves up for Tokyo.”
The Red Caribou winning their practice match against France, 4-3. (Photos: Lars Kopp Photosport)
The team is back, centralized in Vancouver, BC. As soon as they complete their mandatory return quarantine, the team will be back on the pitch, in the gym and pushing hard for the finish line.
The original plan was to stage prior to the Olympic Games in Fukui, Japan and get acclimatized. Due to the state of emergency in several Japanese areas, this early departure has been cancelled. Safety of the people in Fukui as well as Field Hockey Canada’s athletes, coaches and staff come first. The High-Performance leadership and coaching staff are currently doing everything they can to set the MNT up for some pre-tournament prep, whatever that may look like.
As a result, the team will double-down on their work in the domestic training environment to simulate game situations, engage in intra-squad scrimmages and set themselves up the best they can at home.
“We’re going to take what we learned on tour and hammer through our systems and structures. We’ll have an intense block of training starting now,” Sarmento said. “The energy is really positive in the group. Everyone is super excited to be preparing for the Olympics.”
The Men’s National Team now returns to the domestic environment for the final training block prior to the Tokyo Games.
With the final Olympic roster yet to be determined, this block is also the last evaluation period for the coaching staff. According to Gademan, the internal pressure can build but never at the expense of everyone’s drive to make the team better. He said the team will take every advantage over the next two months to prepare for success in Tokyo.
“This is a unique group of guys. They have a camaraderie that is so rarely seen. Even in the fight for nomination for the team, they are so supportive of each other. This is one of our strongest points,” Gademan said. “We will make the best out of the time we have here in this training environment.”
The Men’s National Team coaching staff will be nominating 16 players (plus reserves) to represent Canada at the Tokyo Olympic Games. This roster announcement will happen at the end of June. Stay tuned and join the Men’s National Team’s Road to Tokyo here.
Photos: Lars Kopp (@lars.kopp.photosport)
The Scoop is a Field Hockey Canada interview show co-hosted by Kevin Underhill and Ali Baggott. The show shares the voices and stories of the Canadian field hockey community. Season one of the Scoop will follow the Men’s National Team on their Road to Tokyo. Each episode will feature an interview with an athlete or coach and will be centred around their hockey experiences and their preparation for the Tokyo Olympic Games.