Bright times for PAHF hockey

It has been a frenetic year so far for hockey teams across the PAHF region. The Hockey Series Open events; the South American Games; the Central American and Caribbean Games; the Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup; the Youth Olympics – and it is not over yet!

In just a few weeks Argentina women will be seeking their eighth win at what is likely to be the final Hockey Champions Trophy, while Argentina men and Canada men will be competing against the best nations in the world at the Odisha Men’s World Cup, Bhubaneswar.

But as we take a brief pause for breath between the excitement and drama of the Youth Olympics and the two year-end grand finales, it is a fitting moment to reflect on how the PAHF nations are faring on both the continental and world stage.

It is also time to take a look at ‘where now’ for our teams.

At the South American Games there was little surprise that our own ‘powerhouse nation’ Argentina won both the men’s and women’s events with ease. Currently ranked two and four in the world respectively, Argentina has never been beaten in these championships – the one year they didn’t take away a gold medal, 2016, they didn’t enter the event as it clashed with Olympic preparations.

Of course, the men’s team still has a job to do at the 2018 Odisha Hockey Men’s World Cup in Bhubaneswar, but since 2014, Los Leones have been on a progressive and, at times, meteoric rise up the rankings of world hockey. Since 2017 there has been some rumblings in the ranks as team management changed shape but, for now, with former international German Orozco in the head coaching role and Matias Vila as manager, there is stability in the team.

So accepted was Orozco’s appointment, that two players, Gonzalo Peillat and Agustin Mazzilli, withdrew their resignations from the national squad and will be available for Los Leones in India at the World Cup. As for the head coach, he has promised that Argentina will be the “protagonists” at the World Cup. “Argentina is going to be a team that attacks with more people than it did, clearly without neglecting our defensive side. We will seek to be protagonists in all our matches.”

The women, by contrast, have enjoyed stability in their coaching ranks but have seen the team slide down the world rankings to fourth. Las Leonas are a squad in transition, with a seventh-place finish at both the 2016 Olympics and the 2018 World Cup, far below their usual standards. Head coach Agustin Corradini has put together an exciting squad - Lucina von der Heyde’s award as Best Young Player at the World Cup emphasizes the young talent in the squad - but the squad needs a little more time to gel. As England women’s former head coach Danny Kerry said as The Netherlands swept to victory in the World Cup: “The team I think can break the Netherlands’ stronghold on the game is Argentina. They have the talent in their squad to do that.”

How dearly the team would love to make that prophecy come true in China at the Hockey Champions Trophy!

The other PAHF team in London for the Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup was USA. They fared worse than Argentina, eliminated from the competition after just three matches. Bottom of the pool, including an opening day 3-1 loss to Ireland, was enough to send USA plummeting down the World Rankings to 12th place, out of the top 10 for the first time in four years. With the resignation of stalwarts Jackie Briggs and Melissa Gonzalez, Team USA has some building to do. In teenage sensation Erin Matson, however, they definitely have a star of the game.

Looking northwards, Canada men will be travelling to Bhubaneswar to join Argentina in their World Cup adventures. The Canadian men’s team has a tough opening fixture against Belgium, the side that currently sits third in the FIH Hero World Rankings. They also have host nation India (WR:5) in their group; the more experienced members of the squad will also be all too aware of the vociferous nature of a hockey match against the host nation in India and that is something that no amount of training can prepare you for.

The Hockey Series has taken the hockey world by storm this year. It is a two-stage competitive format that offers teams not in the new FIH Pro League a chance to progress towards Olympic qualification and also gain valuable international experience.

All hockey-playing nations are eligible to enter the Hockey Series Open, with one or two of the top placed teams (depending upon number of entries for that event) qualifying through to three Hockey Series Final events. Each of the three Hockey Series Finals will comprise eight teams, with the nine top ranked teams outside the Pro League, taking part alongside those teams qualified from the Hockey Series Open events. The top two nations at each Hockey Series Final will then progress to Olympic Qualification events.

This year, Salamanca in Mexico hosted the very first Hockey Series event, with five men’s teams and five women’s teams all vying for the top two places and a ticket through to the next round. Victors in the women’s tournament were Canada, who sailed through the event unbeaten and with a very healthy goal difference of 70.

Canada will be joined in the Hockey Series Finals by Mexico, whose only loss was an 8-1 thrashing at the hands of the champions.

Mexico men will be joining the women’s team in the next round after they finished runners-up to the USA. Nothing could split the two sides as they played out a 5-5 draw but the USA had a superior goal difference from their other pool matches. The results mean USA men will also be at the Hockey Series Final, which will offer Rutger Wise and his men a great chance to improve their world rankings.

There was a neat symmetry to the Hockey Series, starting and ending in PAHF nations – just as it has launched with a bang in Salamanca, so it ended with an exciting event in Santiago.

Chile men and women dominated the two competitions. The women’s team sailed through unbeaten to claim the top spot, while the men dropped just two points, when they drew with Uruguay.

Uruguay women and Brazil men took second place in the competition, a sure sign in both cases of how international exposure at a high level helps shunt development on exponentially. Uruguay experienced top level competition in the 2015 Hockey World League Semi-Finals, while Brazil competed with the world’s best at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016.

The teams who have qualified for next year’s Hockey Series Finals will be competing at the following venues and against the following teams:

- Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 26 April - 4 May: Canada and Brazil men’s teams will be competing against Austria, China, Italy, Malaysia, Vanuatu and Wales.

- India 6-16 June: Mexico and USA men will be facing India, Japan, Poland, Russia, South Africa and one team yet to be decided.

- Le Touquet, France 15-23 June: Chile men will be up against France, Ireland, Korea, Scotland, Singapore and one more team.

- Japan 15-23 June: Chile, Mexico and Uruguay women will compete against Fiji, India, Japan, Poland and Russia.

- Valencia, Spain 19-17 June: Canada women will face Belarus, Italy, South Africa, Spain, Thailand, Wales and one team yet to be confirmed.

Looking back at the first season of the Hockey Series Open, many of the score lines reflected the wide gulf between some of the more established sides and the up-and-coming nations. Between them Mexico and Canada hammered 58 goals past the Guatemalan women’s defence, while Panama men suffered a 22-0 defeat to USA. But the very fact that teams such as Guatemala, Panama, Peru and Bolivia now have national teams playing international fixtures is a sign that hockey development in the PAHF region is working. Very few adequate facilities, a skeleton coaching staff and a lack of hockey heritage are all barriers that are being smashed apart as the dedicated hockey administrators push their sport into the spotlight.

When talking of developing nations, two teams that deserves special mention are the high-flying Cuban men’s and women’s teams. Entering the 2018 Central American and Caribbean Games at the lower end of the FIH World Rankings, Cuba men lost their opening match to Trinidad and Tobago but then saw off all opposition, including Mexico in the final.

Cuba women did even better. They won all their matches, including a tightly contested 1-0 win over Mexico to take the gold medal.

With Argentina women storming to victory at the 2018 Buenos Aires Youth Olympics, with Canada, Chile, Uruguay and Mexico knocking on the door of the top flight of international hockey, with Trinidad and Tobago holding their own at the Indoor World Cup, with Brazil on an upwards trajectory, and with teams like Cuba, Guyana and Guatemala all creeping up the rankings and gaining invaluable experience of international hockey and, importantly, success on an international stage, it is true to say that hockey in our region is in pretty good shape!