GOLD COAST, Australia — Mark Pearson was on a chairlift in Whistler when he got the late call that he had made Canada’s field hockey roster for the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.
Striker Ravi Kahlon had injured a hamstring in a pre-tournament match. Pearson, just 18, was his replacement.
“I gingerly, barely, skied, trying not to get injured (coming) down the mountain,” Pearson recalled in a recent phone interview. “My buddy drove me back to Vancouver. I got on a flight the next morning to meet the guys in Melbourne.”
Fast forward 12 years and Kahlon is B.C.’s parliamentary secretary for sport and multiculturalism while Pearson is headed to Australia’s Gold Coast for his fourth Commonwealth Games.
The Canadian men, currently ranked 11th in the world, are in Pool A with No. 1 Australia, No. 9 New Zealand, No. 15 South Africa and No. 23 Scotland. The other pool features No. 6 India, No. 7 England, No. 12 Malaysia, No. 13 Pakistan and No. 24 Wales.
Host Australia has won all five previous Commonwealth goal medals. Canada’s best finish was sixth, in 2002 and 2014.
With more than 225 caps, Pearson is one of Canada’s most experienced players with a resume that also includes the 2008 and 2016 Olympic Games, the 2011 and 2015 Pan American Games and pro stints in Belgium, Germany and India.
The 30-year-old from Tsawwassen, B.C., is also a member of the Canadian Olympic Committee’s athletes’ commission, which represents Canadian Olympic and Pan American Games athletes.
For Pearson, the Commonwealth Games are an “interesting test.”
As a multi-sports event, the field hockey team gets to feel part of something bigger. And the event offers good competition without the stress of Olympic qualification or ranking points up for grabs.
“I think it’s a really good one for experience for younger players,” Pearson said. “Because at the end of the day we want to be at every multi-sport games.”
With the top two in each pool advancing, the Canadians will be targeting the April 6 game against New Zealand. And the two countries have history.
Canada and Pearson qualified for Rio by defeating the Black Sticks in a dramatic 8-7 shootout in July 2015 in the semifinal of the FIH World League in Buenos Aires. Pearson scored twice in a nail-biting shootout that took more than 25 minutes to complete — a marathon considering the attacking player has just eight seconds to score.
“Probably one of the more nerve-wracking things that I’ve ever been a part of,” Pearson said.
The Canadians beat New Zealand the next time they met in May 2016.
“We knew they were coming for us because we had beaten them. And we played them off the pack again,” he said.
“They’re great guys, a great team. But I know that there’s a special place in their heart to beat us after what we’ve done to them in the last couple of encounters.”
As for top-ranked Australia, which was beaten by the Netherlands in the Rio quarterfinals, Pearson says the team known as the Kookaburras has survived some recent bumps.
“In the last year they’ve kind of come back strong again and they’re sort of showing the same form that they have done in the past,” he said. “While they probably don’t strike the same fear in the heart that they once did, they’re a really really solid team. And especially on home soil. They’re a fit, strong, powerful group. They’re well-coached and tactically and technically very gifted.
“We’re going to have to be at our absolute best to stand a chance against those guys. I’m really looking forward to the challenge.”
Canada finished 11th in Rio at 0-4-1. Pearson, who missed the qualifying road to the 2008 Olympics due to injury, waited to have an Olympic tattoo done until after Rio.
“For us, qualifying for the Olympics Games is such an accomplishment, that I always wanted to be there and be a big part of it when we did qualify,” he said.
Pearson and captain Scott Tupper, who recently hit the 250-cap plateau, are the last remaining players from the 2008 Olympic roster. Close friends, they adhere to the team motto “to leave the jersey in a better place.”
The Canadians have been doing well of late. They beat sixth-ranked India and gave No. 7 England a scare at a tournament last summer.
“But we can’t rest on our laurels,” Pearson said. “We know we’re not a global power. So we have to come out and perform every game otherwise we’re going to lose.”
Canada, built around an experienced core, is headed to India later this year for the 16-team World Cup.
“I’m really optimistic about the next year and a half, two years with this group,” said Pearson.
Pearson, whose parents met at a Vancouver field hockey club, started playing the game at age eight.
Away from the pitch, he is an entrepreneur in the making. Pearson, who has a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of British Columbia and a master’s in sports management from the Johan Cruyff Institute, recently spent time working with a marketing company.
He left the job before Christmas and is now in the process of starting a coffee company. A pre-match coffee has always been part of his preparation and he noticed in Rio that coffee was part of other athletes’ rituals, with some even bringing their own coffee maker or brand of coffee.
He’s working on his own coffee brand, with some of the proceeds to boost sports in Canada. Pearson also coaches girls’ and boys field hockey teams, including at his home West Vancouver club.
Gold Coast marks the first major games for Paul Bundy as Canadian head coach. He was elevated to the top job after Anthony Farry left the program in May 2017 to head up the Japanese women’s team ahead of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.