The sun was out and the birds were chirping, but the warm west coast weather was not the only reason the Canadian Women’s National Field Hockey Team was all smiles when they returned to training Wednesday at the University of British Columbia’s Wright Field.
The women are on a high, and who can blame them?
Canada is coming off a second place finish at World League Round 2 in Dublin, Ireland, which resulted in a spot earned at the World League Semi-Finals in June, where 2016 Olympic qualification is up for grabs.
“I’ve had a long career with this team and unfortunately success hasn’t really come,” explains captain Kate Gillis. “Finally, something came our way. It was such an amazing feeling.”
With the finish, the women have cracked the top twenty in the International Hockey Federation’s world rankings. Overall, it’s a good time to be a women’s field hockey player in Canada.
“I think the belief is there that the rankings don’t really matter,” Gillis adds. “On any given day any team can win. When we’re playing well, and playing as a team, that kind of belief makes us go further instead of always playing to our ranking.”
Canada’s jump in the rankings has been well earned.
The women were dominant at World League 2, losing only two matches, both one-goal decisions to the 14th ranked Irish, the second of which was the final and went to a penalty shootout.
Canada will now have two chances to qualify for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: the World League Semi-Finals, where they have to finish in the top three to qualify, and the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, the winner of which qualifies for Rio 2016.
“That’s been the goal all the way along is to make sure we give ourselves every chance to qualify and we’ve done that,” says Women’s National Team head coach Ian Rutledge.
“To be able to get to a tournament (World League Semi-Final) where a minimum of three, and sometimes four and five teams can qualify directly, it increases the chances.”
To get to this point has been a work in progress.
It has been a busy eighteen months for the Women’s National Team as they have been travelling the world playing meaningful matches preparing for this year, which comes with attempting to qualify for the Olympics – something which Canadian women have not done since 1992.
“The biggest piece that been a little bit missing for us is the experiential gap that we’ve had to close on a bunch of teams that are older and more capped than us,” says Rutledge. “The only thing that can bridge the experience gap is actually experience itself.”
Last year, having played test matches versus England, Wales, and Ireland, let alone the competition they faced at the Commonwealth Games, which was among the best in the world, the Canadians did a lot to turn inexperience into valuable experience from which they can draw.
Add that to the January trip to New Zealand where they faced the vaunted Black Sticks, and you could say the Canadian women had seen it all prior to World League 2.
“We want to make sure we’re getting better every step of the way. Ian has done that,” says Gillis. “It’s when we’re exposed to those top ten teams that we can start to mimic them, and a learn from them, and that intensity is what we need to start bringing to our squad.”
But it’s nice to be back home for a while, especially when the changing Vancouver weather allows for more comfortable training.
For the next five weeks, the women will be training with their entire squad of twenty-seven athletes before heading to Toronto in the middle of May for a series of test matches against a familiar foe, Ireland.
The training and matches in Toronto will be at the Pan American Games pitch at the University of Toronto and will serve as a way for the Canadian Women to familiarize themselves with their home turf ahead of the Pan Am Games.
After Toronto, the women will head to Valencia, Spain for the World League Semi-Finals and their first shot at Olympic qualification. But while the stakes are officially getting bigger, the process remains the same.
“Nothing changes, to be honest,” says Rutledge. “This is a long-terms project for this team, to make sure they’re improving every day. Tournaments like World League 2, World League 3 (the Semi-finals), and the Pan American Games are just timed measures along the way to see if we’re on task and on target.”
So far, so good.