The Canadian men's field hockey team has booked its ticket to the Tokyo Olympics. Now it's the women's turn.
Like the men, the women have Ireland standing in their way. But unlike the men, the women will have to win on the road this weekend in Dublin — after having to raise the money to get there.
The women, ranked 15th in the world, face the eighth-ranked Irish in a two-legged playoff Saturday and Sunday at Energia Park, former home of the Leinster rugby team.
The Canadians sat out the last six Olympics, last competing in 1992 when they finished seventh in Barcelona.
Having lost their Own The Podium funding, the women have turned to family, friends and supporters to fund their Olympic qualifying journey.
Unable to continue paying coach Gilles Bonnet, Field Hockey Canada gave the South African his notice earlier this year. It was a shock to the women, who credit Bonnet for their rise up the rankings.
But then things got worse.
"We also received the news that in order to have our program, we'd have to fund it ourselves ... We really couldn't believe what we were hearing from our national sporting organization," said captain Kate Wright, who leads all Canadian women with 222 caps.
The team and its supporters put together a business club, searching to make ends meet. Three anonymous donors stepped forward to pay Bonnet's contract through the Ireland series.
"We haven't received any financial support through Field Hockey Canada this year. In order to run our program, we had to do it ourselves," said the Kingston-born Wright.
Bad news about a sponsor dropping out affected play in a warmup loss to Belgium as players pondered have to dig into their own pocket to get to Ireland, said Wright.
But an unexpected, anonymous donation of $25,000 filled the void.
"We'd like to hopefully thank that person one day because it allows us to focus on what's really important in this crucial time period," said Wright.
On Bonnet's suggestion, the women moved to Belgium in September 2018 to join club teams. It gave them access to elite coaches and trainers while allowing the Amsterdam-based Bonnet to work with them regularly.
The Canadian women get accommodation, some transportation help and are paid a modest amount by their European clubs — partly to play and partly to coach youth teams. They also get Sport Canada's carding stipend.
Over the last six weeks, they have played 13 internationals, often in back-to-back matches to get ready for the qualifying showdown.
The Irish are coached by former New Zealand assistant coach Sean Dancer, a former Australian under-21 player. He took over in April, inheriting a team that turned heads by finishing runner-up at the 2018 World Cup.
While the Canadian women have had to do without a strength and conditioning coach because they can't afford one, Bonnet says the team has been well-prepared in the leadup to this weekend.
"I think there's been some excellent excellent work from some unique people, Diane Gillis for one, who stands head and shoulders above everybody else in the last year that has kept this team going and made sure that we are funded to what we need to do to be competitive."
Gillis is team manager — and Kate Wright's mother, not to mention a former Canadian international long jumper (as Diane Coffey). Mike Gillis, Kate's father, played 246 NHL games before becoming a player agent and then running the Vancouver Canucks as GM and president of hockey operations from 2008 to 2014.
Wright's husband, Philip also represented Canada in field hockey,
As to his future, Bonnet says he will be moving on immediately after the playoff, calling an end to what he calls a "great project."
"And that's OK. I have peace with that ... Post that I have other opportunities, but that's not important," said Bonnet, who took over as full-time coach in May 2018. "And I'm not in any discussions with Field Hockey Canada about if we're successful what will that mean. That's not a discussion on the table."
The Canadian women lost their Own The Podium funding for 2019-20 after receiving $200,000 in 2017-2018 and $75,000 in 2018-2019.
They had received $2,150,000 in the Rio quadrennial when they were centralized in Vancouver. The men, who qualified for Rio, only got $300,000 although that has been boosted to $1,470,000 ahead of Tokyo.
"Own The Podium, they tend to focus on teams or athletes who have already made it to the podium," said Wright "Which is great and we support all sports and all athletes, but at the same time it doesn't give teams like us an opportunity to get the podium."
Field Hockey Canada CEO Susan Ahrens, a former coach and Scottish international player who previously served as the organization's director of hockey development, says the women go into the weekend on the heels of a preparation program that is "top-five in the world."
"Of course it's never enough," she added. "All of us want to do more. But Field Hockey Canada has given a lot to our national teams and will continue to because they're an extremely important part of our organization."
She says an analysis of funding over the last five years showed 70 per cent of funding has gone to both national teams.
According to Field Hockey Canada's financial statements, the women's team received $994,536 for the year ending in March 2019 (compared to $1,110,466 for the men) on total revenue of $2.91 million.
Sport Canada and the COC accounted for $1.06 million of that revenue. Donations and revenue raised another $1.01 million.
In essence the women have had to prop up that bottom line in order to play.
They raised more than $80,000 to finance a June trip to a FIH Series Finals tournament in Spain where they finished runner-up. That qualified them for the Irish playoff.
A private donor paid for the women's week-long camp in Victoria ahead of the Spain event. Foundry, a B.C. mental health initiative for youth, has come on board as a jersey sponsor.
Some of the players have struggled with their own mental health issues, said the 30-year-old Wright.
"We've created this relationship in order to share our stories and show that we are tough resilient athletes but we do struggle some days too. Having Foundry across our chests and having sponsorship with them has been pretty unique and something we're really proud of."
Ahrens calls it a "difficult year."
"But I think we've really done the best for high-performance and in their interests and kept this rolling through to position them really well. Although it's not been easy from either side, I think we're in a great position."
Field Hockey Canada will be meeting with OTP this month to discuss future funding, hopefully with both of its teams Olympic-bound.
Wright, meanwhile, wants to leave her team in a better place for those who follow her.
"I don't want the girls coming through, the junior national team, to have deal with these stressers and come up against all these different hurdles and obstacles in their career," she said. "I want them to be able to focus just on field hockey."
The Canadian men, ranked 10th in the world, qualified for Tokyo in late October in a sudden-death shootout over No. 13 Ireland in West Vancouver.
Should the women join them, Canada will have qualified six teams to Tokyo. The record was nine in 1976 in Montreal, when Canadian teams did not have to qualify as host nation.
In Los Angeles (1984), Canada qualified eight in the absence of the Soviet Bloc. Canada had five in Sydney (2000), Beijing (2008) and Rio (2016).
Those wanting to help the Canadian women's field hockey program, can visit www.fieldhockey.ca or contact team manager Diane Gillis at email@example.com
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2019.
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