It was six months ago that the Canadian U18 Men’s team was sitting in the hot bleachers in Guadalajara, Mexico watching the Youth Pan-Am gold-medal match between Mexico and Argentina.
Canada had punched their ticket to the Youth Olympics, but according to Head Coach Geoff Matthews, the team wanted to be in that final, the team wanted to win.
It is now six months later and Canada’s Youth Olympic team is on the ground in Buenos Aires and the competition is only days away.
As returning silver medallists at this tournament, there is no shortage of expectations of this nine-player squad.
But as Matthews indicates, this team has formed its own identity and has set its own expectations.
“We were challenged during the qualification stage and it’s been very clear that the guys have all ramped up their training since,” Matthews said.
“I don’t think we feel any additional pressure coming in as returning medalists. We’re a completely different team.
We’ve had a very focused approach, we’ve had a team-first approach and we’re confident and excited coming into the tournament.”
Matthews, a native to South Africa, moved to Canada six years ago with his wife and son.
He is only months away from becoming a Canadian citizen and says Canada feels like home to him.
Since moving here, Matthews has become a major contributor in the Canadian field hockey community.
He has worked with the senior men’s national team as well as the junior programs on top of his role of Technical Director with West Vancouver Field Hockey Club.
“I very much feel like I’m a part of the team here in Canada. I’ll always have my roots in South Africa, but Canada is my home now,” Matthews said.
“I see myself as an honourary Canadian and I’m counting down the days until I receive my full citizenship.”
It’s not just the athletes who can’t wait to get the competition started, Matthews is excited to represent the Red and White on international soil as well.
He expects the competition to be fierce, but he knows his team can compete with even the best sides in the world.
“It’s an honour to coach a Canadian national team,” he said. “We have such a great group here, we’re not living in the shadow of any previous Canadian teams.
We’re going to start games strong, we’re going to finish strong and we’re going to work to improve every game.”
The field hockey competition at the Youth Olympic Games takes the form of Hockey 5s: a fast-paced, high scoring and physical form of field hockey played outdoors on a smaller pitch enclosed by shin-high boards.
Another notable fact about the competition is that games are only 20 minutes long. Matthews has said previously that, because of Canadian affinity with ice hockey and ball hockey, this type of competition suits the Canadian style of play.
More than anything, the Youth Olympic Games is a tremendous opportunity for the athletes and coaches to get experience and exposure on the international stage.
Matthews notes that competition environments like this can go a long way setting up young athletes for future careers with the senior national team.
Balraj Panesar and Brandon Pereira are two members of the 2014 YOG team that finished second place in Nanjing, China.
Both athletes are now consistently representing Canada on the senior Men’s National Team. Pereira looked back on his experience fondly and issued kind parting words for the team.
“Representing Canada in the 2014 Youth Olympics in China was a memory I’ll never forget,” He said.
“Playing the fast paced ‘Hockey 5’s’ game at a multisport tournament was a one of a kind experience. After all the months of dedication to training both on and off the field, the time is finally here.
All the best to the boys heading to Argentina to represent Canada at the Youth Olympic Games.” – Brandon Pereira
The 12-team men’s YOG Hockey 5s competition features Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Canada, India, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, Poland, Vanuatu and Zambia. Canada’s first game is against Austria on October 7 at 12:30pm local time.
“To play at this competition, in this environment; this is an opportunity of a lifetime for these young men and I know we’re going to do the country proud,” Matthews said.