FIH Series Finals, Valencia - Canada

And just like that it was over. As a hockey journalist covering most of the FIH Series Finals, it was almost with a feeling of grief that I departed Valencia after the sixth and final event, with the “ole’s” of the Spanish supporters and the more pragmatic “Let’s go Canada”, from the families and friends of the Wolfpack, still ringing in my ears.

It was a series of events that started and ended with Canadian achievements, but with a bit of every corner of the PAHF region also playing a part. 

The FIH Series Finals is the one and only iteration of this event. It began life with the Series Open – eight events at venues across the globe. The idea was that every nation that was a member of the FIH – and wasn’t involved in the FIH Pro League – would have the chance to participate in an international event. From here, depending upon the number of entries, one, two or even three teams would qualify for the next stage, the FIH Series Finals. The top two placed teams would then qualify to take part in Olympic qualifying events to be held later this year. So, for all intents and purposes, the most important matches at any of the Series Finals were the two semi-finals – the winners would be on the next step of the ladder to the Tokyo Olympic Games. 

The first stop for this showcase of hockey began with the first men’s Series Finals event in Malaysia. Here, PAHF was represented by Canada; a team with a strong history of pulling out the big performances when it really mattered; and Brazil, who have been making steady progress since they took part in the home Rio Olympic Games in 2016.

In the event, Brazil’s hopes were demolished in the first two games as they lost 6-0 and 3-0 to Malaysia and Italy. They demonstrated they could be competitive at this level when they narrowly lost to higher-ranked China 3-2 and then beat Belarus 4-3 with a joyful explosion of free-running, attacking hockey.

But it was Canada who were the star-turn. An early and sobering 3-1 loss to Wales, who were ranked 14 points lower than Canada (World Ranking: 10), was the wake up call that Scott Tupper and his team mates needed. 

The Red Caribou worked their way through the tournament, over-turning the threats from Austria, Belarus and China before they beat Italy in the semi-final to set up a grand finale against the host nation Malaysia. By then, they knew they had an Olympic qualification place, but the hard-fought 3-2 win over Malaysia was the icing on the cake – as was David Carter’s award for Goalkeeper of the Tournament. 

Bhubaneswar, India was the scene for the second of the men’s events and PAHF was represented by the USA and Mexico. While neither team qualified through to the Olympic qualifiers, both USA and Mexico’s performances were enough to secure them a rise up the rankings. USA move up one spot from 25 to 24, while Mexico move up a hugely impressive seven places to 32nd in the table. 

In the local PAHF derby, USA beat their southern opponents 9-0 but Mexico went on to prove they were competitive against higher-ranked opponents as they only lost 3-1 to Japan and beat Uzbekistan 4-3. 

USA for their part were within touching distance of an Olympic qualifier as they topped their pool and won a direct route to the semi-finals. They then lost by a narrow 2-1 margin to South Africa and had to settle for a third/fourth play-off. With their confidence dented by that tough encounter, USA lost 4-2 to Japan in the third place match but for both USA and Mexico, this was a rare and appreciated chance to pit themselves against a range of styles from across the globe.

The third and final men’s Series Final was held in Le Touquet in France. The sole PAHF representative was Chile, who finished in sixth place after losing a tense match with Egypt. Earlier in the competition, Chile had failed to win a match, although they did draw 2-2 with Ukraine and were only narrowly beaten by higher ranked Scotland. 

Of the three Series Finals events for women, only two had PAHF representation: Hiroshima where Chile, Uruguay and Mexico were competing, and Valencia where Canada was waving the continental flag.

For Mexico, this was a huge learning curve. The young and inexperienced team were facing teams such as Japan, who recently won the Asian continental championships and Poland, who have the benefit of playing regularly against high quality European competition. It is no surprise that the Mexican side began with a 7-0 loss to continental rivals Chile and followed it with losses to Russia and Japan.

However, Mexico finished their campaign in the best way possible – with a win over Fiji. Captain Michel Navarro spoke about the experience her team had gained and how they now need to “train a lot and think about how we can use this experience in the Pan American Games.”

Both Uruguay and Chile arrived in Hiroshima with hopes of a top two finish. When results dictated a quarter-final meeting, one of the PAHF teams would be ending the Olympic dreams of their neighbour. In the end it was Chile who came closest to qualification. They dispatched Uruguay 5-2 but then fell foul to the higher-ranked India. The final score of 4-2 was no disgrace but it meant that the best Chile could do was a third place, something they achieved by beating Russia in a tight game that went to a shoot-out. The result has moved Chile one place up the FIH World Rankings to 15th – equally their highest position, first achieved two years ago in 2017.

And so to Valencia where Canada women had put their heart and soul into a top two finish. The Wolf Pack’s story is spreading: how a team uprooted and moved continents in search of a consistently higher standard of opposition and regular top quality club hockey. The move to Belgium, and the sacrifices associated with it, were worth it as Canada stormed to a semi-final place and then proceeded to not just beat but annihilate their higher-ranked rivals, Italy. 

The team ran out of steam in the final as they faced the host nation and team ranked seventh in the world, Spain, but by then they had done enough to ensure that they remained on course for a first Olympic appearance since 1992. They also moved a heady three points up the rankings to 18th – a position they last held in 2016.

And that is the end of the FIH Series Finals. For the global hockey audience who tuned in to watch their team’s progress the hockey on display has been a joy to watch. The tension, drama and sheer unexpectedness of the sporting action has added to our sport. That only Canada men and women will progress from the Series Finals to the Olympic qualifiers is a shame but each of the teams that participated will take the experience into the next challenge, the Pan American Games in Lima in just under a month’s time.