The Masters Indoor World Cup is taking place in Hong Kong in mid-February (14-17 February). The event is another demonstration of the life-long appeal that hockey holds for so many participants.
More than 25 teams from nine countries will be taking part across three age groups (40+, 45+ and 50+) for both male and female teams.
It is a historic occasion because for the first time the Masters Indoor World Cup is being held under the joint banner of the International Masters Hockey Association (IMHA) and the WMH (World Masters Hockey) – a collaborative move that has been some time coming to fruition.
From the PAHF region, two nations are represented, Canada and USA. Other competing nations include Australia, England, Hong Kong, Italy, Switzerland and two giants of the indoor game, the Netherlands and Germany.
Canada is entering two men’s teams into the event, a 45+ team and a 50+ team and a women’s team into the 45+ age group. USA are entering teams in both men’s age groups and the women’s 40+.
When it comes to experience of Indoor World Cup action, the Canada men’s 45+ team has within its ranks three members who all played in the inaugural Indoor World Cup in 2003 – Ken Pereira, John de Souza and Gary Singh. The three men were all part of a Canadian team who finished a respectable sixth out of twelve participating nations.
Experience is also a key component of the USA women’s team. Competing in the women’s 40+ event, there are three former members of the national indoor squad, Nickey Hitchens, Maria Keesling and Denise Zelenak. Zelenak captained the national indoor team from 2004 until 2010. Taking charge pitch side will be head coach and former national player Debbie Phillips.
One of the wonderful things about the age-group events is the fact that many of the players will be familiar faces for those taking part. Just as 10-15 years ago, the players were doing battle for their country as full-blown internationals, now they are competing with the same players again – same high standard, possibly slightly slower speed of movement.
That said, Canada’s Ken Pereira is one player who does not seem to have allowed age to slow him down at all. His colleague John de Souza emphasised the Peter Pan-like nature of his team mate: “When all else fails we will be turning to the ageless wonder Ken Pereira to bail us out where ever he can.”
We caught up with both Pereira and de Souza ahead of the Masters Indoor World Cup to find out how their team’s preparations were going and why indoor hockey hung onto its participants so successfully.
The first point to make is that the Canadian 45+ team members are making things extra tough for themselves as they are competing in the 40+ age group, meaning that all of the players are giving their opponents five years and, for some of the players it is even more years, as John de Souza explains.
“I am over 50, and we have four athletes that are doing the same. This is going to be a massive disadvantage but we knew what we were signing up for. When we decided to do this we made a commitment to each other that we would train hard and be the best that we could be.
“To date, we have been pretty good and have motivated each other to get into the gym. We have done what we can at practice to get up to speed with the feel and pace of the game. We had a festival weekend against the USA and that was great preparation.”
The squad has been doing two hour training sessions every week in preparation for the Masters Indoor World Cup. Even this can be a big commitment for the players. Travelling to the venue, juggling work, family and training – these are things that are a regular part of the lifestyle for international players in their 20s and early 30s but, as a Masters athlete the demands change with age. These athletes have gone into the challenge knowing it will be a tough few months of preparation and competition. And as de Souza explains, the task has been made even harder because it took the players a while to decide to go for it.
“We bantered the idea around but didn’t really decide for definite until December. Our biggest hurdle besides getting fit – which is actually just a better word for losing weight – was finding enough people to make the commitment. Then it was about finding the facilities in which to practice. The hurdles continue to be the same as we lack good competition to prepare and the availability of facilities in which to practice.”
The team persevered though and in the final weeks before the teams jet off to Hong Kong, the training intensity will ramp up, with two tough training sessions a week.
For the ever-green Pereira, the sessions he does with the Masters team are just one part of his hockey training schedule. De Souza’s comment about his team mate’s fitness levels become clear when you learn that Pereira still trains and plays with his club side, sometimes playing as many as four or five matches at the weekend, with club matches combined with sessions with the Masters team.
“I would say I still train the same way I did 20 years ago,” says Pereira. “I haven’t altered my program too much, I train with the same intensity but maybe add a few more rest days. I am probably a bit smarter with my body in order to prevent injuries but I keep my cardio and strength at the highest level I can.”
Both Pereira and de Souza feel the game has become much quicker since that first Indoor World Cup back in 2003.
“It’s all about speed,” says de Souza. “Everyone is fast now. The ball moves quicker and the tactics have changed significantly to generate opportunities. No one plays one position so you really cannot be a one dimensional player and expect to succeed at the higher levels. Goalkeepers are also way better at defending the corner, which makes it all the more important to be good in free play.”
For people who have not seen a Masters event, there is the potential to dismiss the action as less intense than its regular international counterpart. Nothing could be further from the truth. Once on the field of play, the action is fierce and hugely competitive and both de Souza and Pereira are incredibly proud to be pulling on the maple leaf and belting out the national anthem.
“It is always an honour to wear the Canadian colours and represent your country,” says de Souza. “I have been blessed to have had that honour as a player and coach in this great sport of hockey. I love the challenge of playing against the best in the world and nothing makes me prouder than seeing our teams do well on the world stage.”
Pereira agrees: “Yeah, I always get excited when putting on the maple leaf, no matter if it’s indoor, outdoor or for my first Masters event. I have pulled on the jersey more than 400 times and every time it feels great. I cherish every moment I get to represent Canada.”
Canada has a strong tradition in indoor hockey; both the men’s and women’s teams have held high world rankings and both have had regular forays into the ‘best of the best – the Indoor Hockey World Cup. De Souza says the game is an “easy sell” when it comes to getting people to get involved in the sport. Some of that is because the game is a lot like ice hockey, even more so with boards and the fast nature of the game.
“Provinces like Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario are forced to have long indoor seasons and we have now been working with USA to foster club tournaments to create more of a competitive atmosphere,” he says. Adding that he hopes to see both the USA and Canada entering more indoor events in the future.
For both the Canada and USA teams the competition in Hong Kong will be fierce. The presence of indoor giants Germany and Netherlands, as well as top ranking nations such as England and Australia, means a top four finish will be a highly creditable achievement.
To wrap up the conversation, we asked both de Souza and Pereira what was the great draw of international indoor hockey for them at a time when they might reasonably be hanging up their boots?
“For me, I think if you are having fun, keep doing it,” says de Souza. “That goes for hockey or whatever you enjoy in life. Hockey is also a great way to stay in shape and keep healthy”.
“Specifically talking about indoor hockey, I think it helps that you don't need as many people to get a game going. I also believe that in the outdoor game there is less opportunity to get the ball while in indoor it’s so hard to hide. You are always involved in the game. You are always moving and you really don't have to cover that much space to get from one end to the other.”
“To be honest, I think we just have a lot of fun,” says Pereira. “That’s what has kept my career going, just enjoying the camaraderie, the jokes, the ribbing of one another and the excitement to compete.”