The USA hockey team’s Road to Tokyo 2020 began on a golf course. On the first day of October, the players swapped their hockey sticks for golf clubs and indulged in a round of four-person scramble. The goal? Raise funds for their Olympic journey, starting with a trip to Bhubaneswar for a two-match, winner-takes-all qualifying tournament against India this weekend.
They may have won bronze medals at the Olympics (1984) and World Cup (1994), and finished in the top five at the Rio Games, but the American hockey team can’t reach the Olympics, or even make it to qualifying tournaments, without private donations. Unlike India, there is no support from the government and, given the cut-throat environment, the US Olympic Committee pays for the bare minimum.
So, in the run-up to big events like the Olympics and the World Cup, there are up to five such fund-raising events, usually hosted by a players’ parent. “It’s a way to make a bit a bit more money for our programme,” says USA coach Janneke Schopman, a Dutch legend who is a two-time gold medallist, having won the 2006 World Cup in Madrid and the Beijing Olympics. “The funds from the golf event were used to kick-start our preparations for the upcoming season.”
Money, or the lack of it, hasn’t been the biggest hurdle for Schopman though. She belongs to a country where hockey is arguably the second-biggest team sport after football. For the last seven years, she has – in different roles – lived in a nation where the sport features nowhere in the public consciousness.
“It’s hard to explain the sport, that’s why we have to say field, right? In rest of the world you say hockey,” Schopman says, referring to the more popular version of the sport in the US – ice hockey.
On November 1 and 2, the Indian men’s team (rank 5) will play Russia, ranked 22, while the women (rank 10) will take on 13th-ranked USA in a two-match series. The winner of each match gets three points, while one point will be awarded to each team in case of a draw. The team with higher points after two matches will qualify for the Olympics. In case both teams are level on points, the team with the better goal difference will go through If both teams are level on goal difference as well, a shootout will be held after the second match to determine the winner This is the last chance for the teams to qualify for the Olympics.
Schopman, 42, joined the USA set-up in 2012, soon after the London Olympics where the team finished at the bottom of the 12-team pile. Back then, the programme was overseen by Australian Terry Walsh, who later became Indian men’s team coach. USA parted ways with him and brought on board former Great Britain player Craig Parnham, who was an assistant coach of the British women’s team at the London Games.
Schopman was appointed Parnham’s assistant. The duo converted the USA into a team that constantly punched above its weight. They won the gold medal at the 2014 Champions Challenge, defeated then world number 2 Argentina for the Pan American Games title, won a bronze at the 2016 Champions Trophy, finished fourth at the 2014 World Cup and fifth at the 2016 Olympics.
The turnaround was scripted in the agricultural hub of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, from where most of the players emerge. “It’s the hotbed of the sport in the United States,” USA Field Hockey Communications Manager Teryn Brill says. “Of the selected travelling roster of 20, 10 are from Pennsylvania. 17 of them are from the Northeast region (comprising New Jersey, New York and New Hampshire, among others but New Jersey is the most dominant region after Pennsylvania).”
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Schopman explains that these are the only regions where hockey – a predominantly female sport in the USA – is played from an early school level right up to college. But the downside is that after college, there’s nowhere to go, meaning the players retire at an age most players around the world begin their careers. “At college level, the player pool is very large. But if you don’t make it to the national programme directly after college, there’s no incentive to continue playing, which means many players retire when they are 22,” Schopman says.
The American aversion to hockey – field hockey – baffles Schopman especially since other sports that are similar in nature – lacrosse and ice hockey – continue to thrive. Several hockey players, in fact, have dabbled in these two sports. “In this country, people love the speed of games. They don’t mind rules – American football is difficult to understand with all the rules, but they are not deterred by it. So yeah, one of my biggest dreams is to make hockey popular in this country,” she says.
One way to do it is by winning a medal at the Olympics. Before that, however, they’ll have to beat India who are going through a phase similar to USA’s – finished 12th at the Olympics and then produced a string of good results. There have been murmurs in the hockey fraternity that USA’s failure to qualify for the Olympics could have an adverse impact on the sport’s future at the Games itself, given that hockey’s spot isn’t guaranteed on the Olympic programme after the 2024 edition. With the organisers now keen to reduce the size of the Games, there have been suggestions to make five-a-side hockey an Olympic event.
Would the failure to qualify for Tokyo 2020 nudge Los Angeles 2028 towards that move? “I would lie if I say it doesn’t matter (qualifying for Tokyo). It is important for a country as competitive as the US,” Schopman says. “The one thing I have learned from being here is that it is important for US to feature in every sport in the Olympics. So qualifying for Tokyo does matter, yeah.”