Being a member of Canada’s OTHER men’s hockey squad — the National Field Hockey team — can be an unbelievable honour, privilege and burden all at the same time.
There is almost an obligation to succeed, to continue the lineage left by the legends who came before me like Rob “Shorty” Short, Ken "Kenny" Pereira, Bindi "Bones Kullar," Mike Mahood, Paul "Bubli" Chohan, Peter Milkovich and Matt "Peckerfish" Peck. The list could go on.
Despite remaining firmly situated as a niche sport in this country, our national men’s team has been remarkably successful, and has competed at six of the last 11 Olympic Games.
Recent successes at the 2014 Champions Challenge and the 2015 World League Round 2 have been positive steps forward for our group, but we still needed to take that big step forward, qualify for a major tournament and write our own chapter in Canadian field hockey history.
With that as the backdrop, I’d like to take you back to June 11, 2015 in Buenos Aires, Argentina for our quarter-final match against New Zealand. Qualification for the Rio Olympics was on the line.
Overcoming long odds has become almost second nature to us and while I was fortunate enough to compete at the Olympic Games in 2008, and the 2010 World Cup early in my career, recent failures to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics and the 2014 World Cup were beginning to weigh on me. Honestly, I was starting to feel the pressure to maintain our tradition of success.
Fighting back the butterflies
As I walked out to line up and link arms with my teammates for O Canada on that frigid June evening in Buenos Aires, I was fighting back the butterflies that come with an Olympic qualifying match.
I had a nervous confidence going in, as I knew how much work we’d put in preparing for this and that the potential was there for us to pull off a historic upset. But in the back of my mind there was some lingering doubt, heightened by a drubbing at the hands of the Olympic champion Germans two days earlier, and oh yeah, Canada had never beaten New Zealand in a tournament before — ever.
However, those thoughts dissipated as I jogged back to our 25-yard line for the pre-game huddle where a combination of smelling salts and a rousing speech from Captain Canada, Scott Tupper, got my focus level back on point.
The match started somewhat tentatively, with both sides feeling the other out and looking to avoid making the first critical mistake. The first three quarters continued like this with both teams trading possession and the odd chance.
The key for us, like it is against any highly ranked team, was to "keep the tension" in the match, and make sure that the pressure and frustration continued to build on them as the match wore on. However, that is easier said than done and the Kiwi chances started to come early in the fourth quarter — one deflection saved brilliantly by David Carter, then another rebound shot agonizingly wide.
We struggled to keep solid possession moving forward and relied on some gutsy tackles and gritty defence to keep the score level. As the final horn sounded we could sense a palpable frustration from the Kiwis — who we’d watched two days earlier celebrating a 3-3 tie with Korea — ensuring them of the "easier" crossover quarter-final against us.
Up next was a shootout to decide who would move on to the semifinals and the Rio Games.
First up were the Kiwis — goal.
Gulp… now it’s my turn to shoot — deep breath — goal — thank God.
The next four shooters did not go well as they scored twice and we missed twice, leaving the score at 3-1. One more goal from either of the final two Kiwi shooters would send them to Rio.
It didn’t look good for us.
The fourth Kiwi came in for a chance, pulled right, pulled back to the left and flipped it over Carter's pad — it’s going in. EEEEMMMM — the eight-second buzzer goes just as the ball was about to cross the line. The Kiwis celebrated thinking they’ve booked their ticket to Rio, but Carter smartly asks for a video review to double check. Minutes passed as the video umpire went over the video frame by frame.
No Goal! The ball crossed the goal-line something like 0.2 seconds after the eight-second limit — 0.2 seconds away from packing up our bags and going home.
The pressure was still on us, though. We had to score to stay ialive. Luckily Sukhpal Panesar stepped up cool as you like — GOAL — and now it was 3-2.
Another chance for the Kiwis to win followed, but Carter did an incredible job to stay with the Kiwi and forced the shot wide.
The pressure was back on and we needed to score to force sudden death. Gordie Johnston pulled right, back to his left and left no mistake on the shot. We were all square again, 3-3, after five shooters.
Now we went into a sudden-death shootout — Gulp. It’s back to me again — deeper breath — Goal — thank God!
The tension continued to grow for the next four rounds of sudden death as every time we scored, they followed suit. And when we missed and they had chances to win it, Carter was more than up to the challenge. On one, he made a diving save, deflected the ball up and we watched it agonizingly float towards the goal before — DING — hitting the crossbar and bouncing out. The Kiwis struggled with this one, in particular.
During all of this I tried my best not to ride the waves of emotion as I knew I had to stay composed should I have to shoot again, but I have to be honest and say that pretty much became impossible the deeper we got into sudden death.
As a quick aside, I know from talking to my sister when I got back that this was about the time in the shootout that my mom, who was watching on a YouTube stream back in Canada, went upstairs and hid in her bedroom. The tension was too much to take. Instead of watching, she asked to be informed by a shout after each goal or save.
Her anxiety would have only increased after the order switched in the sixth round of sudden death and, after another incredible save from Carts, suddenly her son was back up to shoot with the Olympic Games riding on his stick. I went in and pulled to the right going around the keeper to work some space for a shot. Although the angle was narrow I had net to shoot at and flicked it towards the target. Whack! The flailing goalie made an incredible save, diving back to pick the ball out of midair with his stick.
As I trudged back to the 25-yard line my mind was racing — sadness and frustration mixed with soul-crushing disappointment. I could have wiped away seven years of grinding and disappointment with one goal and now I was going to have to go back, stand there quietly, and wait, hoping that my teammates could pull it out for us and I wouldn’t have to re-live that miss for the next four years of my life.
Two more tense rounds passed before Carter made another epic save, and then Adam Froese was back up with another shot to send us to Rio. I waited with bated breath as he pulled left, curled back right and found the gaping net! Yeeesssss!!!! I ran as fast as I could with outstretched arms to join Carter and Froese in celebration.
I don’t know who I hugged first or for how long but the rest of the team was quick to pile in on top of us. By the time I’d pulled myself out of the pile the tears had started rolling, a combination of qualifying for the Olympic Games, the release of tension after a 31-minute shootout, and thinking about my family and all our supporters back home. It was all so, so good.
I hugged and definitely kissed some of my teammates with tears still streaming down my cheeks. This was the moment I’d been waiting for, my teammates had been waiting for. This was the moment that made all those 6:30 a.m. trainings in the Vancouver sleet and paying for trips out of our own pocket for the past three years so worth it.
I grabbed my cell phone, flicked on the cellular roaming and started calling, I didn’t care how much it cost, I needed to share this moment with my mom, my sisters and my girlfriend, although it wasn’t a great conversation as it went something like: (sobbing)... “We did it!” (more sobbing)… “We did it!”
(Large photos courtesy The Associated Press/International Hockey Federation)