Volleyball on the Rise in Canada

Jen Cross of Ontario is a sophomore at Michigan

Canada’s Pakmen Volleyball Club in Mississauga, Ontario, has a straightforward motto, dripping in attitude: “Are You Ready For This?”

Terrel Bramwell, who was in the eighth grade when he met Pakmen head coach Kelly Smith, wasn’t sure he was prepared at all. In fact, he was a basketball player at the time.

But just a few years later, Bramwell, now 20, is part of Canada’s National Team program, and his skills are evident in a video on the club team’s fan website (pakmennation.com). In the clip, Bramwell leaps over a 5’10” woman and spikes the ball so forcefully that it bounces roughly 20 feet off the sand.

“Pakmen has been a great stepping stone for me as an athlete,” Bramwell said. “They taught me how to be mentally tough, how to focus under pressure and stay calm. The club also gave me a lot of exposure. I wouldn’t be where I’m at without [Smith] and Pakmen.”

Smith said the club, which was established in 2002 in the western suburbs of Toronto, now has 1,400 players ranging in age from 6 to 18. Of those, about 140 are in the club’s elite program. The rest are in “house” leagues and serve as a feeder system.

“We are by far the biggest club volleyball program in Canada,” Smith said. “Most clubs have 50 to 200 players.”

The second biggest program—the Durham Attack—is about one hour away, on the east side of Toronto.

The Attack, which was created 19 years ago, has about 500 players and boasts 12 national titles, including nine by their girls’ teams.

Smith said Pakmen is more dominant on the boys’ side—that’s where all five of their national titles have been won—while the opposite is true for the Attack. And Janet Cairns, the vice president of the Attack, said there is a reason for that.

“We have a two-to-one ratio of girls’ teams to boys’ teams,” Cairns said.

Besides Bramwell, another top product of the Pakmen program is Daniel Dearing, 21, who is one of eight athletes on Canada’s national beach volleyball team. Dearing, currently recovering from a knee injury, is 6’6” and boasts a 42-inch vertical leap indoors, 37 inches on the sand.

Smith is confident more success stories are on the way, especially with his program’s emphasis on passing and versatility.

“Before age 16, we teach everyone to play every position,” Smith said. “We want to create fundamentally sound players at early ages before they can then specialize.”

Doug Anton, Volleyball Canada’s Youth Development Coordinator, said the work being done by Pakmen and the Attack is important to growing the sport, which ranks sixth in the country with 773,000 active players, including 59 percent female. Volleyball also ranks fifth in Canada in attendance, with 1.1 million fans last year, the highest figure for any sport without a pro league.

Canada’s “Big Four” provinces for producing volleyball players, Anton said, are Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec. But the trick now is to improve facilities.

“We had a huge growth in facilities in the ’60s and ’70s, but the game has changed since then,” Anton said. “With the advent of the jump serve, you need more room for players. And in a lot of gyms, volleyball players have had to battle for court time with athletes from other sports.”

In the past 10 years, Canada has seen a rise in the construction of volleyball-only facilities. But there is more work to be done, Anton said, and whether Canada can maximize its potential will depend on money.

“Funding has improved the past five or six years,” Anton said, “and we hope to see a direct reflection of that on the court.”

How to get to the Podium

Canada has never won an Olympic medal in men’s or women’s indoor volleyball. Their highest finish was fourth in men’s and eighth in women’s, both in the 1984 Games.

The men, however, won a 1996 Olympic bronze medal in beach volleyball.

Canada’s men also have three medals in the Pan Am Games, winning bronze in 1977 and 1999 (both in indoor) and gold in 1999 (beach).

“Every year, it’s our goal to figure out how to get on the podium,” said Doug Anton, Volleyball Canada’s Youth Development Coordinator. “We are a small country with a population of 33 million. The chances of it happening on a consistent basis are perhaps not realistic. It’s tough to compete with the Big Three of the U.S., Brazil and Russia.”

The fact that Canada has had more success internationally in beach volleyball as opposed to the indoor game makes sense, Anton said.

“Finding 12 players of international standard is a lot more challenging than it is to find two special men or women for the beach game,” Anton said. “And if you find those two special players on the beach, you can run with them for years.”

North of the Border

Half of Syracuse University’s 2011 women’s volleyball roster is made up of Canadians, an indication that talent from north of the border is a growing trend.

But Michigan Coach Mark Rosen—who has one Canadian on his roster, 6’4” Jen Cross of the Durham Attack—said that while the country has some good players and teams, they lack depth. They also don’t play against top competition on a regular basis and struggle with fundamentals such as setting and ball control, he said.

Recently, though, more Canadian club teams have begun traveling to the U.S. to get the necessary competition, and more of those players are signing with U.S. colleges.

When I first started recruiting Canada 10 or 11 years ago,” Rosen said, “I was met with almost hostility, like, ‘Why are you trying to take our best players?’ But in the past five or so years, there has been much more movement.

It makes a lot of sense. The college level here is very high. We offer full scholarships, which they don’t in Canada. Players can come here, get developed and then return to support their national teams.

Read about a Canadian Beach Duo on the Rise

Read about what to do when visiting Toronto

Originally published in November 2011

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