Canada’s national men’s volleyball team didn’t have much time to mourn losing to the United States for a 2012 Olympic berth.
The team which came close to knocking off the 2008 Olympic gold medalists – Canada lost its Olympic dream narrowly, 28-26; 25-18; 22-20 on the weekend in a qualifying event.
But the team has started almost immediately in preparing for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. The next quadrennial begins Friday with a 4 p.m. (ET) game against Finland, as the FIVB Volleyball World League touches down in the centre court of Toronto’s Ricoh Coliseum.
It’s part of a weekend extravaganza of the sport, with the huge Canadian Open national youth tournament (ages 14-18) next door at Exhibition Place’s Direct Energy Centre – 685 youth teams – plus eight senior sides plus disability sport’s Canadian and U.S. national sitting volleyball teams – on 56 courts. The side-by-side tournaments add up to Canada’s largest volleyball event in history.
“The volleyball community in this country has never got to know the players well,” said high performance director Julien Boucher. “Gavin Schmitt (of Saskatoon, Sask.) has real star potential. He’s 6-foot-10 and an MVP in South Korea’s pro league. He gets half the balls for his team.”
Boucher said the team took the Olympic qualifying loss hard “because the team didn’t play as well as they know they can play. But we couldn’t dwell on it.”
Another player to watch is libero – or defensive specialist – Dan Lewis of Oakville, Ont., who acts like the quarterback of the Canadian team with digs to save balls and passes to set up attacks.
“The guys are pretty excited about the tournament,” said Lewis. “We got three other great teams here and we have to keep fine-tuning our game to close the gap on the top teams in the world.”
The 16-country World League event runs May 18-20. The 23-year-old World League is an intercontinental tournament that takes place every summer with international TV coverage and the biggest cash prizes in the sport.
Canada is in a tough pool with world number-one Brazil, number-four Poland – both countries are London Olympics bound – and Finland which stands at No.27. Canada is at No.18. The three other pools in the tournament also get underway this week.
Last week, Canada’s loss to the United States at regional NORCECA Olympic qualifications in Long Beach, Calif., was disappointing but also had a positive side to it, said Schmitt, who was recruited to play basketball in high school before settling on volleyball.
“Losing to the U.S. after coming so close to a gold medalist was like getting hit in the stomach and losing all your air... like a balloon popping,” he said. “But that’s the nature of international sport.
“We’re continuing what we started building six years ago. Just because one Olympic cycle is over it doesn’t mean it has to be a new chapter. There are a lot of guys who are going to stick around so we are going to keep working and building together.”
At the qualifier, the Canadians defeated world number-five Cuba and world number-17 Puerto Rico twice. Last year, Canada earned its spot in the World League for the first time in five years.
“We’re really disappointed how the Olympic qualifier finished and it’s been a bit hard to get our refocus here,” said Lewis. “But there were a lot of good things that happened there and we have to build on those.”
Canada’s head coach Glenn Hoag of Gatineau, Que., comes back to train the nationals after his pro season as a coach is finished in Turkey. He got his team to the European final this season. Hoag and most of his players are pros in other countries.
“I really like the pool we are in. This is exactly what we need right now. We need to play these strong teams,” he said. Because so many players play abroad as pros, the Canadians have only about four months together each year. When Hoag took over as national coach in 2006 “we established a strict system, so that when we came together, we had references,” he said.
Brazil’s head coach Bernardinho (Bernardo Rocha de Rezende) sees the Canadians as a dark horse in this tournament.
“First, they have an excellent coach in Glenn Hoag, and they play very well tactically. They are doing very good rebuilding work and are sometimes overshadowed by the fact that they have to play such strong teams in their region – such as the United States and Cuba – but they are a smart team.”
The schedule for the World League in Toronto: Friday, Canada vs Finland at 4 p.m. and Brazil vs Poland at 8 p.m.
Saturday, Canada vs Brazil at 4 p.m. and Poland vs Finland at 8 p.m.
Sunday, Brazil vs Finland at 4 p.m. and Canada vs Poland at 8 p.m.
The Canada-Brazil match on Saturday will be carried live on CBC-TV while Sportsnet One will provide live coverage of the Canada-Poland match Sunday evening. Sportsnet One will have the Canada-Finland match on tape delay Friday at 11 p.m.
After Toronto, the four teams meet in Katowice, Poland, on June 1, 2 and 3. The third stage will be in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, on June 8, 9 and 10, while the fourth stage will be held in Tampere, Finland, on June 15, 16 and 17. Finals will take place July 4-8 in Sofia, Bulgaria.
This is Canada’s sixth World League appearance and first since 2007. Its best finish was seventh in 1992. Brazil has won the most World League titles at nine, and has participated in all previous 22 editions. Russia is the defending champion beating Brazil in the final. Finland is making its eighth World League appearance and Poland its 15th.
Canada is 2-10 against Brazil in World League play, 1-3 vs Finland and has never played Poland.