THE might of the North Shore's growing field hockey empire will be on display April 4-8 as Canada's under-17 and under21 national women's teams, both bursting with North Shore players, take on the U17 and U19 national teams from the United States in an exhibition series at West Vancouver's Rutledge Field.
Seven of the 26 players on Canada's U17 squad hail from North or West Vancouver while 10 of the 24 on the U21 team call the North Shore home. With many of those U21 players now plying their trade at universities across the continent, this tournament will serve as a unique sort of reunion.
"A lot of the girls either live in Ontario or they go to school in the States so it will be a great chance to see everyone again," said Handsworth Grade 12 student Hannah Haughn, one of the few U21 players still in high school. "It's a great opportunity not only for us to play one of the top international teams . . . but also for our community to see some high-level field hockey and to get excited about the sport."
The North Shore field hockey community definitely is buzzing about the event, said Field Hockey Canada marketing director and West Vancouver native Steven Davis.
"I think this event is kind of the first time that we're able to showcase the incredible talent and development that has happened in field hockey over the last decade," said Davis. "Over the last 10 years field hockey on the North Shore has really taken off. We've seen that with the number of girls getting scholarships to play NCAA and going overseas and the number of girls ending up on the national team as a result of some really fundamental grassroots development that is happening."
Davis, himself a former national team member and longtime coach in West Vancouver, said international field hockey matches like these were not possible on the North Shore before the sport-specific Rutledge Field opened up last summer.
"That field is really changing the fortunes of field hockey very, very quickly - it's turning it mainstream," he said. "I think the party is just kind of starting in terms of where we can take field hockey and the opportunities that are opening up."
The North Shore's presence in the sport is driven by the West Vancouver Field Hockey Club, whose more than 2,000 members make it the largest in North America, said Davis, adding that club members and alumni have taken up positions throughout the country. The U21 team that will be on display this week is coached by Peter Milkovich, a Handsworth grad who played for Team Canada in two Olympic Games.
"All the way from the coaching staff right down to the physio, it's very North Shore-centric," Davis said of the national program. "We've kind of permeated all levels of field hockey in Canada."
There could be big things in store for the players who will take the field this week.
"The real development here is a long-term goal," said Davis. "The U21 group is the team that is expected to qualify for the Rio 2016 (Olympic) Games and the under-17 are the ones for 2020."
The national women's team failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympics and, with competitions like this, Field Hockey Canada is hoping to reverse those fortunes in the future.
"What Field Hockey Canada has done is really put a huge emphasis on junior development and creating a high performance pathway for the kids coming out of high school, identifying early who the superstars are and keeping them involved in the sport," said Davis.
"The teams that you'll see (this week) that are half North Shore athletes are kind of the ones that are going to be carrying the torch for the next eight to 12 years. And that's really exciting."
North Shore stalwarts such as Anna Kozniuk and Shannon Elmitt, both of whom have played with Canada's senior national team, will play starring roles for the U21 team along with NCAA standouts Amanda Bird and Emma Plasteras. Leading the way, though, is Haughn, the diminutive dynamo who last fall helped the Canadian senior team to a fourth place finish at the Pan Am games before returning home to lead Handsworth to its first ever provincial title.
"Hannah Haughn is arguably the best player in Canada right now - and she's in Grade 12," said Davis. "She's lighting up the international scene - she's an incredible talent." Last weekend Haughn scored all three goals as West Vancouver Field Hockey Club's premier women's team defeated UBC 3-0 in the Vancouver Field Hockey League championship final. "A player like Hannah is a player who will be leading the charge for eight, 12 years," said Davis. "She's only 17."
The U.S. is sending its U19 team because many of the members of its U21 team are gearing up for the 2012 Olympics with the senior national team. Even though it will be Canada's U21 team against America's U19, it still should be a close, hotly contested series, said Davis, adding that the Canadian team is made up mostly of U19 players as well.
Fans that come out to watch the action might be surprised by what they see, said Haughn. She'd love to see the stands full of fans, particularly young players learning the game, cheering on Team Canada.
"It's really fast - you don't really get a sense of how difficult it is when you're younger and you don't know what kind of skills it takes to play at the international level," she said. "If there's young players in the junior divisions, it's just a great way for them to get excited about the sport and really see what they can accomplish with the sport as well. I came from where they were."
For the players taking the field this will be a great opportunity to play in front of friends and family while experiencing the thrill of donning the Maple Leaf jersey.
"Nothing else compares," Haughn said of playing for Team Canada. "You go out there and you play every minute as hard as you can. You're representing your country, your pride. It's kind of hard for me to describe what it's like. It's unbelievable."
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Here are the North Shore players taking part in the series: U17: Leah Frome, West Vancouver; Ashley Kirsten, North Vancouver; Stephanie Norlander, North Vancouver; Taylor Pearson, North Vancouver; Sophie Plasteras, North Vancouver; Natalie Stewart, North Vancouver; Hailey Reeves, West Vancouver.
U21: Jessica Barnett, North Vancouver; Amanda Bird, North Vancouver; Rachel Donohoe, North Vancouver; Shannon Elmitt, West Vancouver; Hannah Haughn, North Vancouver; Karli Johansen, North Vancouver; Anna Kozniuk, North Vancouver; Emma Plasteras, North Vancouver; Kim Scraper, West Vancouver; Holly Stewart, North Vancouver.
Match schedule (U17 listed first): Wednesday, April 4, 12: 00 p.m. and 2: 00 p.m. Thursday, April 5, 12: 00 p.m. and 2: 00 p.m.
Saturday, April 7, 12: 00 p.m. and 2: 00 p.m. Sunday, April 8, 9: 00 a.m. and 11: 00 a.m.