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With a scorching sun blasting down Tuesday afternoon on Tamanawis Field in Surrey, B.C., Canada's men's field hockey team continued its preparations for the Tokyo Olympics, with a focus on trying to finally break through at the big event.
This is the first time since the Games in 1984 and 1988 that the men's program is returning to consecutive Olympics having also competed in Rio, but for two of the veteran players just showing up at the event, that can't be the mark of success anymore.
"Canada has never finished in the top eight of the Olympic Games in the men's side. That's our target," said team captain Scott Tupper.
The Canadians are up against it in Tokyo with Germany, Holland, Belgium, Great Britain and South Africa in their group. To advance in the tournament, Canada will have to place in the top four of its group — which requires knocking off one of the top teams in Europe in the group stage.
"That's a challenge, but it's a cool challenge. You go to the Olympics to play the best teams," Tupper said. "I think we have the opportunity to surprise if we play well on any of the days. Giant killers."
Tupper has competed at two previous Olympics for Canada — Beijing in 2008 and the last Games in Rio.
Mark Pearson was also part of both of those teams. However, due to an Achilles tendon rupture in the final of the Pan American Games in 2019, Pearson was on the sidelines watching agonizingly as his team tried to qualify for the Games two years ago.
He's healthy and hoping to be part of a team that finally rises up to the level he feels they're capable of.
"It's all about performance. We've underachieved [with] those last two teams. Really trying to leave our mark this time around," he said.
"We have an amazing group of guys here. More competitive for spots than in 2016. The level is just higher now."
While the level might be higher, there have been unprecedented challenges and pressures to overcome for this field hockey squad. Since their memorable win in October 2019 against Ireland to qualify for the Olympics at Rutledge Field in West Vancouver — a sudden-death shootout victory — the team has had to deal with a pandemic and a complete overhaul of the coaching staff.
WATCH | Canada defeats Ireland to book Olympic spot:
Longtime head coach Paul Bundy stepped down in April 2020, and for several months the team was in a state of flux with multiple interim coaches.
Finally, last December it was announced that Pasha Gademan, born and raised in Amsterdam, would be taking over the reigns.
He brought on two assistant coaches, also from Europe.
'It's really coming together now'
The learning curve has been steep, with very few international matches over the last year to tweak game plans and strategy, but Gademan feels his team is in a good place just days away from leaving for Tokyo on Monday.
"It's really coming together now. I'm very happy with these last couple weeks. I think we're in a good place going into Tokyo," he said.
Gademan has added a distinctly European flair to the Canadian team's style but he still wants to stay true to their Canadian hockey roots.
"Grit. These guys have grit. This is a group of characters who have known each other for a long time. I want them to be proud of their Canadian grit," he said.
And at the same time, Gademan wants them to be bold and brash when they take to the pitch in Tokyo.
"I want them to play more ambitious. Taking chances. Going for it. Daring. And accept if it doesn't work. But we have to play an exciting, ambitious game."
Canada begins its Olympic event July 24 against a strong Germany side.
Gademan is under no illusions about how challenging it will be, but like Tupper, he feels they can pull off an upset.
"Killing giants is something that you have to fight for every second," Gademan said.
Ahead of one of its final practices on Canadian soil, the men's field hockey team received an added financial boost to fuel its Olympic dreams prior to takeoff.
Gademan was able to share the news with 16 players on the team that they would each be receiving $6,000 from CAN Fund — an organization that has raised more than $40 million for Canadian athletes since 2003.
The $96,000 surprise was met with cheers and celebration on the field as the athletes learned they'd be getting the boost.
"You could see the smiles on the guy's faces when it was announced. It means a lot to us, especially for a sport like ours where we were self-funding for a long time," said Fin Boothroyd, a player on the team.
Boothroyd is a first-time CAN Fund recipient and first-time Olympian.
"I'm thrilled. All these guys were patting me on the back," he said. "Makes everything easier. It lets us focus more on competing and succeeding."
It even has Boothroyd considering his next move.
"I've been living with my parents, so maybe I'll have to get out of the house," he said, laughing.
Spirits are certainly high around the Canadian men's field hockey team after an agonizing 20 months since qualifying for the Olympics and then facing many unknowns.
This will be Tupper's last Olympics. And he's going to pour his heart into the opportunity.
"I want to play well. I want to beat a team we're not expected to [beat]. We haven't done that in the past events I've played in," he said.
"I want to enjoy it. I want the first-timers to enjoy it. And win."
WATCH | Tupper reflects on Canada qualifying for Tokyo 2020: