Hockey arrived with a bang in Lima as two new water-based pitches were thrust into the international spotlight. Players and coaches unanimously praised the quality of the pitches, with one veteran of the game, Trinidad and Tobago’s Kwan Browne
, pronouncing the facilities as “world class” and “amazing”.
The entire event was a huge success. Teams loved the atmosphere and the vibrancy of a multi-sport event. The spectators were treated to day after day of exciting, fast hockey action. And by the end of the event, two world class teams, Argentina men and women, had booked their tickets to Tokyo 2020, with professional and classy displays that had set them apart from the opposition.
Argentina men beat Canada 5-2 in a gold-medal match that began evenly but tilted the way of the South Americans when they scored three goals in quick succession in the second quarter. The women’s final saw Argentina inexorably taking apart their Canadian counterparts in a 5-1 show of strength.
Both the men’s and women’s top scorer tables were also headed by Argentina players. Maico Casella and Jose Tolini scored 10 goals apiece while Julieta Junkunas led the women’s table with 11 goals, four more than team mate Carla Rebecchi, who was in second place.
“We improved match by match,” said Rebecchi
as she reflected on her team’s performance. “We finished the tournament playing really well so that was very good. As a team we stayed very focused throughout the competition and we defended very well – that was why we were so effective in the final game.”
As someone who is a veteran of the Pan Am Games, Rebecchi says she has seen a lot of evolution among the participating nations. “There is real improvement among the other nations, I have even seen huge improvements between now and the previous Pan Am Games."
Despite the growth and development among the lower ranked teams, going into the semi-finals of the Pan American Games hockey competition there was a familiarity about the line-up of teams contesting the top four places. In the men’s competition, Argentina, Canada and Chile have all appeared in every semi-final since 1999.
The women’s competition has seen the same four teams – Argentina, Canada, Chile and USA take the top four places in the previous two editions – 2015 and 2011.
But look a little closer and there are signs that the world order is changing and it is within the USA teams where the change is most noticeable.
USA men have been on an upward trajectory in recent years and that progress under head coach Rutger Wiese culminated in their first bronze medal at the Pan Am Games since 1995. Adam Miller
is a 73 times international with the USA men’s hockey team and he puts the new found success down to the hard work and dedication of the players, increased maturity and familiarity among squad members and an improved test match schedule in preparation for major events.
“We’ve been together as a core group for a long time now. The value each of us places on the pack and the way we’ve prioritised it over our own personal goals and life events when it’s still an amateur sport has allowed the team to achieve some initial successes and take steps forward with the programme.
“As performances improves, the quality of international opponents improves. We’ve got huge respect for the hard graft the coaching staff are doing to make sure we’ve got the schedule in place that we need to succeed.”
The squad is now aiming for qualification for the 2022 World Cup and with positive performances at the past few international events, Miller believes the ambition is on track.
Looking back at this event, Miller, who lives in the UK, says: “Undoubtedly the highlight of the Pan Am Games was winning bronze with your best mates in front of family, friends and girlfriend for the country you’ve come to know and love. But we also scored a shed load of goals and put in some ruthless performances against teams that in the past we’ve only scraped results against.”
For the USA women’s team, the direction of travel has been reversed. After flying up the rankings between 2014 and 2017, where they hit an all-time high of sixth in the world in 2016, they are now on a downwards spiral. USA are currently 13th and likely to drop further after this round of continental qualifiers is finished.
While the USA men have no chance of qualifying for Tokyo 2020, USA women may still stand a chance through the rankings but it will be a close call.
Meanwhile, north of the border and things are hotting up for Canada. A strong performance by both the men’s and women’s teams at the FIH Series Finals means that the Red Caribous and the Wolfpack are still in with a shout of qualifying for Tokyo 2020. Canada men won their Series Final in Malaysia so will have home advantage in their FIH Qualifying event in October/November. The women finished second to Spain, and that result also earns them another shot at qualification.
Mastermind behind the women’s success has been South African Giles Bonnet
. He professed himself “satisfied” with the silver medal performance in Lima, especially given the team’s ranking going into the event. [Canada are currently ranked 18th in the FIH World Rankings, behind Chile (WR:15) and USA (WR:13)].
“We learnt a lot from this event,” adds Bonnet, “And we will be using these key learnings in our preparation for the Olympic qualifying event in October. It was the first major tournament for many of the players since the 2018 Commonwealth Games and this experience is vital for the players.
“Reaching the final was another important step for this team to take at this time.”
Heading towards the all-important Olympic qualifiers, the Canada squad will be pulling out all the stops. The squad’s preparations to this point – including moving en-masse to Belgium to train and play for a year – are well documented. Now they will be upping the ante even higher as they seek to build on all they have learnt at the Series Finals and the Pan Am Games.
“We have improved our speed in the game, our restarts, our decision making and we are able to manage better the phases in the game,” says Bonnet. “However there are many areas that we have to improve. We are coming from a long way back in the field and have had to make choices in the past 18 months, some not ideal, in order to fast track our performance to become competitive. Lima highlighted again the gap between ourselves currently and the top teams in world hockey. We will be looking to reduce the gap in some selected performance areas that we feel we can close in the limited time we have.”
So, for now it is back to Belgium for the Canadian women’s team and a tough schedule of matches and training, all with the single-minded aim of getting 16 players onto the pitch in Tokyo.
Canada men’s head coach is the sometimes taciturn but tactically astute Paul Bundy
. Three weeks on and he is still smarting from not winning gold and booking the ticket to the 2020 Olympics.
“Winning the Pan Ams and punching our ticket to Tokyo was the objective for us at these games,” he says. “We knew we would need to play very well in the final – and for Argentina to have an average game – for us to reach our objective. And up until the end of the first period in the final, I thought we did well and were on track – but we had too many big errors and unfortunate injuries. That gave a world class side the opportunity to push the game out of reach for us to win the game. For me, I’m still pretty disappointed, it’s the one tournament you really want to win as a Canadian coach.”
The next two months will see Bundy and his squad working hard to eradicate the small errors that were the difference between gold and silver. While Bundy rues a missed opportunity, he is also phlegmatic enough to see the learning to be gained from losing to the reigning Olympic champions.
“It’s back to training for us in September to close the gaps on the errors we made in the final. Failing in these big games, and the disappointment which comes with it, makes you focus on the small details which you would otherwise overlook. There are many things we need to work on, but for me the most important area would be to have longer periods of consistency in big games and that all our players are consistently contributing. It’s these details we need to focus on, to ensure we are successful in October.”
For one player, this Pan Am Games was a swan song. Kwan Browne
has been a mainstay of the Trinidad and Tobago team for more than 25 years and, as he lined up for his last match in his country’s colours, the emotions got the better of him.
“I lined up to play the last game but I was only able to sing the first two words of the national anthem before I broke down. I needed to get myself together by the time the anthem finished. I managed to hide the tears and emotions from my colleagues and get myself into a position to play the game.”
His Trinidad and Tobago colleagues might not have realised the emotions Browne was fighting back during the anthems but, as they won their final game, 2-1 against Cuba, to secure fifth place, the joyous celebrations among the squad were testimony to the esteem in which their talismanic captain is held.
Browne said he was very happy with the way his career ended, although he rued the lack of preparation in the lead-up to the event. “We did really well, in fact our performance was superb given that we had no preparation. The last time the squad competed on a water based pitch was at the 2017 Pan Am Cup and our first training game in Lima against Canada was first time we had played together for a while. By the time we got fully into the tournament it was nearing the end and we won our last two games. What could we have done with more preparations?”
One person who really appreciates the value of good preparation is Chilean umpire Catalina Montesino
. The sparky 34 year old has been an international umpire for the past nine years and, as she lined up to take charge of the women’s final, she celebrated her 100th international.
“The whole event was amazing. The stadium and the atmosphere was really good, especially because it was a multi-sport event and there were many other sports at our site. But walking out to umpire that final and celebrating 100 caps was the best moment for me. I was full of emotion as I remembered the path I had taken to get there.”
For Catalina, that path had included a strict training and diet regime that had seen her shed weight and reach new standards of fitness. She says: “Now I feel I am performing near my top level. And that moment in the final made me realise that hard work takes you somewhere. If you really want something, then work for it and it is then in your hands to achieve it.”
Aside from the action on the pitch, the PAHF and the International Hockey Federation were also hosting a four-day PAHF/FIH Academy Level 3 Coaching Course. The course, which is stage three of a five stage global coaching pathway, focuses on developing competencies for coaches operating at a top domestic and junior international level. With 22 coaches from PAHF nations attending, the future of coaching in the region looks bright.
Certainly President of PAHF, Albert 'Coco' Budeisky
was happy to see so many coaches on the course: "The coaching course carried out in Lima allowed us to share knowledge and experiences with potential Pan American coaches that we hope will bear fruit in the coming years.”
But Budeisky did offer the following qualification: “The reality of the current situation among PAHF countries was reflected in the final positions. The countries that finished in the top four places have shown that they are at the top level while the other teams remain in need of greater development and international skills to improve and get to a point where they can compete on the continental stage.”
Of course the Pan Am Games was not perfect. Members of the media, players and officials all reported transport and logistical issues in the opening days of the event. Players, coaches and umpires all spoke out about the lack of television coverage, saying that “hockey should be celebrated and be visible to wider audiences.”
But those niggles aside it was a colourful and entertaining representation of sport and, as Budeisky says: “Like at any large, international multi-games event, there were problems at the start but these were quickly resolved and I think we can definitely say the Pan Am Games went very well and was a success.”