CALGARY — The national men’s volleyball team is giving Canada a world contender in another team sport.
The volleyball team was one win away from competing in the 2012 Summer Games in London, where Canada’s 76-year Olympic medal drought in team sports ended with a women’s soccer bronze.
But the men’s volleyball team pulled off their own historic result a year later, coming from two sets down to beat reigning Olympic champion Russia in the 2013 World League final round.
Canada fell short of the podium with a subsequent loss to Brazil, but finished a best-ever fifth among the top 18 men’s volleyball countries in the world.
With that result, the Canadians jumped from 18th to No. 11 among the 127 countries on the FIVB’s world rankings.
Canada opens its 2014 World League campaign in Calgary with back-to-back matches Saturday and Sunday against 30th-ranked Finland.
The Canadians host No. 37 Belgium in Vancouver at the University of British Columbia’s Thunderbird Centre on June 13 and 14, followed by matches June 20th and 21st against No. 14 Australia at Edmonton’s Rexall Place.
Seven players on Canada’s 22-man roster are from Alberta.
“I’m sure Calgary and Edmonton are going to be really bonkers knowing the volleyball culture in Alberta,” said right-side hitter Gavin Schmitt, a Saskatoon native who played college ball in Red Deer.
Canada hosted its World League pool matches in Quebec City and Mississauga, Ont., in 2013.
The annual World League is played over seven weeks each summer. It’s a hectic and exhausting schedule as Canada travels to Belgium, Finland and Australia for the away matches in their pool.
The format changed this year with the expansion of the field from 18 to 28 countries, but Canada’s ultimate goal is to get to the final-four tournament July 16-20 in Florence, Italy.
There’s prize money to be won as the total purse was $5.7 million last year.
Competing against the best teams in the world prepares Canada in its bid to qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“It’s what we’re training for really,” Schmitt said.
“That’s the culmination of international sport. That’s where everybody wants to be.”
The last time Canada competed in Olympic men’s volleyball was in 1992. The United States swept Canada in the final of the qualifying tournament for 2012 to claim the berth in London.
A complete overhaul of the national men’s program by head coach Glenn Hoag, the establishment of a national volleyball training centre in Gatineau, Que., and recent investment in team sports by Own The Podium have all contributed to the resurgence of the men’s volleyball team.
Hoag, who played for Canada between 1981 and 1986, took over the men’s senior team in 2006, which was the same year the national training centre opened.
That facility gave university and college graduates a place to train with their peers and allowed Hoag to drill a national team strategy into them.
Even if players leave the centre to play professionally in Europe and Asia — and most players on the national team play pro — they know how to play for Canada when they return to prepare for big tournaments.
“We really started putting a lot of work into fitting our training into systems and putting our Canadian touch to it,” Hoag said. “We have a very specific offensive system, a fairly specific block-defence system.
“When we established that, that gave references to the guys. Now I don’t even need to mention much about the system. The guys know it. You can observe during training how they’ve completely learned how to work with it.”
That philosophy has allowed Hoag to build more sophisticated strategies and work on the finer details of the game when the players are together.
“Now we’re able to perform fairly well on the world scene,” Hoag explained. “It’s a huge sport like soccer and basketball. It’s a world sport so there’s a lot of federations and a lot of people playing volleyball, so it’s not easy.”
Hoag has expanded the pool of players for the national team to 30 and is able to run a more comprehensive national junior program out of the training centre.
After a five-year absence, Canada qualified for the World League again in 2012. Although the Canadians finished outside the top 10 that year, they upset then-world No. 1 Brazil in pool play.
“Re-qualifying for World League was absolutely massive for us,” Schmitt said. “If we’re not playing in World League, we’re out scrounging for matches to play against good competition.”
Own The Podium doles out federal government funding based on a sport’s medal potential at Olympic Games. Team sports are expensive given the number of athletes on each squad, but in 2010, the feds said $6 million a year had to start going towards team sports.
That development coincided with the Canadian men upsetting world No. 5 Serbia at that year’s world championship.
“OTP has been supporting us since 2010 and that support has been crucial,” Hoag said.
OTP allotted just over $1 million for the men’s volleyball team for 2014-15. The World League prize money Canada won in 2013 didn’t cover the team’s expenses to compete in it, said Hoag.
World League Volleyball doesn’t generate television revenue for the Canadian team, although their matches will be televised on Sportsnet One.
The national-team athletes make a living at the sport by playing overseas. Captain Fred Winters of Victoria, for example, plays in a Chinese pro league.
Six-foot-10 Schmitt and John-Gordan Perrin of Creston, B.C., are Arkas Izmir teammates in Turkey and Hoag coaches that club in addition to his national-team duties.
The Canadian men will also compete in the world championships Aug 30 to Sept. 21 in Poland. The men swept Costa Rica in three sets May 19 in Mississauga, Ont., to win their qualifier.