25th Anniversary of International Ball Hockey - How Far Has The Game Come?
Bruce Huff (Toronto Star June 5, 1996) wrote, “Ball Hockey. On the street, in the gym on the arena floors, it is simply a slice of Canadiana”
The Ontario Ball Hockey Association (OBHA) gave the game legitimacy in 1974….thousands of male and female players from youth through adult, recreational and elite, take part at an arena near you.
Ball Hockey, once equated as a whimsical, unstructured game played by neighbourhood kids on local street and schoolyard parking lots with a tennis ball and a snow pile for nets, made sports history in 1996 as Canada was crowned World Champions at the inaugural global tournament held in Bratislava, Slovakia. Twenty-four of the best players in the country including 10 from Ontario travelled to the first World Championships testimony to the growth of the sport globally”.
This June will mark the 25th anniversary of that triumphant victory by Team Canada and the day the ball hockey community changed forever.
Before we visit the historic event we look back to the start of international ball hockey and the decade of the nineties which was indeed the dawn of a new era in sport as the transition in ball hockey from the 'crazy eighties' to the transition years of the nineties was beginning to unfold. The OBHA inducted it's founding fathers into the Hall of Fame in 1990. Enshrined were Mssrs. Ken White, John Forrest, Paul Coulter and Mike Bernard respectively.
The game itself began to take on a new perspective. It was moving towards speed, finesse and a tenacious fore-checking style of play that wore down the bigger, more physical and less mobile opponents. The game was garnering a new attitude and experiencing a changing of the guard.
In that same year, the OBHA opened its doors and invited their European counter parts in for the very first time as they played host to the Slovaks and Czechs in the annual Can-Am Tournament in Oshawa, Ontario. The event, spearheaded by then president Pat McEvoy and unbeknownst to many, would provide the foundation for the development of international relationships that would involve the participation of many more countries on a much larger scale of competition in the future. The best was yet to come.
Domenic Di Gironimo (OBHA Board member at the time) along with European counterparts were instrumental in the formation of the world body and making the inaugural World Championships happen. For Canada, they didn’t have time to scout and the Montreal Storm 14 and Fernview Rangers 10 players would form the first team from Canada in the first global tournament where they defeated the Czech Republic 5-2 in the gold medal game.
The team set off on their history making voyage with heightened anticipation and a 16-hour travel itinerary awaiting the team. All this only to find unseasonal temperature reaching 30C and no relief of air conditioning in either the travel bus or the hotel, the initial excitement of the trip quickly began to dissipate. Even the services provided by the postwar hotel were inadequate and limited at best. The basic amenities usually taken for granted were simply noy available. This was not Canada!
Canada survived the preliminary round competition relatively unscathed by displaying the grit and determination of the Canadian game throughout the tournament, despite having to deal with the adversity of the lengthy travel schedule, time change, unfamiliar surroundings, vey humid conditions and often enough the politics of sports that often accompany such international events.
The team did their best to continue enduring the almost constant flow of seemingly unending challenges. With opposing ideologies on how the game should be played and officiated, to the type of ball that should be used, all while trying to decipher no less than five different languages, none of which were remotely their own, the team did their best to comply. Everyone finally did agree about one thing though, it was time to “Let the games begin”.
The more collegial and resurgent ball hockey brain trust gathered to reboot and restructure the sport for the new millennium. Since than as a result, the game has experienced unbridled growth and development at the local, intra-provincial, national and international level of competition.
Participation in the minor, junior, men’s and women’s championship tournaments is at an all time high. Players continue to play with their friends and on teams in their community leagues and beyond. They are welcomed to compete in Provincial Championships and in 2021 will be the 47th in Ontario as the OBHA is the longest running association in the world! More teams are represented intra-provincial and in the United States ad at the Canada Cup than ever before, as a result of the communal efforts of the membership, the opportunity to play for Canada is no longer a dream, but a reality for more and more ball hockey lovers.
Zimny Stadion in its natural splendor created more of a spine-tingling sensation for the players as crowds amassed early outside the arena in anticipation of Team Canada’s arrival for their first game. Hockey is large in eastern Europe. Any kind of hockey, especially for the kids. They came in packs looking for autographs, sticks, shirts, or anything they can get their hands on, especially if it was Canadian. The players were honoured and seemingly humbled by the attention as they got off the bus and headed to the ‘Players Only’ entrance, obligingly scribing their names on as many tournament programs that were thrust in their face from excited fans as the coaches proceeded to hand out souvenirs (flags, pins, t-shirts, hats….) to as many kids, security guards and administrative staff around the rink as their supplies would allow.
The team practiced together only twice before the tournament, but they pulled together at the right time. The tournament was a huge success, and the host committee in Bratislava did a good job. The crowds were incredible and the hospitality that the players received was very nice. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to play in a tournament of this magnitude, and all who were involved with Team Canada will remember this for a long time. The team was captained by Mario Moroni and shared a positive socio-cultural and athletic experience in the quaint, former communist city of Bratislava where the Canucks became Slovakian fan favorites on and off the playing surface as the world gained an appreciation of the Canadian game and its people.
Team Canada defeated Austria 16-0 in their first game. The next few games proved to be a but more challenging. Canada then tied Slovakia 5-5 and lost to the Czech Republic 5-2. It became clearly obvious that the keys to success in the tournament would rest on the team’s ability to adapt to the adversity (jet lag, a six-hour time difference, uncomfortable sleeping quarters, dietary challenges and extremely humid conditions) and it’s adherence to a more disciplined approach to the game.
Les Canadians rebounded as expected in their next three games defeating teams from Germany, Switzerland, and Russia to close out the round-robin competition. Canada became the sentimental fan favourite after they eliminated the hometown Slovaks 4-1 in the semi-final. They would meet the Czech Republic for the gold medal and world ball hockey supremacy.
In an exciting and well-played final game, Gus Kourousis, Tournament MVP led Canada to a convincing 5-2 victory over the Czechs to capture the title and first ever World Championship of Ball Hockey. The competition, which brought countries from Europe and North America together, was indeed the most storied and progressive event in the history of the game since organized paly began in the early 1970’s.
The globalization of ball hockey has finally arrived. There are no longer any boundaries between borders. It’s all for one and one for all. The game has indeed become a nation under one roof that enters to all walks of life. It has truly become a game that is open to everyone where anyone can play.
1996 Team Canada, despite winning the inaugural World Championship more importantly played an integral role in establishing the foundation for allied administrative team and players relationships in the sport of ball hockey in Canada.
Congratulations to the Ontario Ball Hockey Association and Quebec Ball Hockey Federation and for their support to Team Canada and their coaching staff of the first World Champions of Ball Hockey for….”Every Great Achievement was at one time considered impossible”.
Game 1 – 16-0 win over Austria
Game 2 – 5-5 tie with Slovakia
Game 3 – 6-3 loss to Czech Republic
Game 4 – 6-2 win over Germany
Game 5 – 14-0 win over Switzerland
Game 6 – 10-0 win over Russia
Semi Final – 4-1 win over Slovakia
Final – 5-2 win over Czech Republic
Team Canada: Vince Arnone, Sal Bambaci, Gennaro Calzolaio, Chris Charles, Robert Costanzo, Ben Davis, Bryan Denney, Angelo Folano, Pat Jaffre, Gus Kourossis, Mike Lapolla, Michel Leclair, Nat Macri, Frank Magno, Mario Morroni, Neil Mcelligott, Giovanni Miloncini, Robert Moretto, Bill Nicholson, Bob Nicholson-Clarke, Frank Perciasepe, Pat Petraccione, Nick Vassilou
General Manager: Tony Iannitto, Head Coach: Daniel Ranalli, Assistants: Peter Morocco, Marc Marino, Administration: Domenic DiGironimo and Technical/Game Official: Mauro Cugini.
Since 1996, when the Slovak host organization held this first World Championship, the game has come a long way. That same host organization would later become the World Ball Hockey Federation (WBHF) fostering global growth and various championship formats, stressing inclusion for both genders and various divisions of play in Men’s and Women’s Open as well as Master’s Open (O35), Elite (O40) and SuperSeries (O50) divisions and youth in U14, U16, U18, U20 and Girls U20 all in 5v5 categories. The WBHF also offers 3v3 Championships for Men’s, Women’s, Master’s Open divisions and U17 & U19 youth divisions.
The Ontario Ball Hockey Association has been instrumental in assisting the WBHF with rapid growth in Russia, partnered with their hockey federation, as well as in China, developing programs for schools and assisting their Women’s Olympic Hockey program. The WBHF has continued its global expansion into Belarus, Estonia, Finland, France, Hungary, India, Pakistan, Poland and Sweden.
What stories will be written in the next twenty-five years? Be a part of writing history!
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