Some of the 42 Alberta youth athletes who recently toured Iceland relax at the Blue Lagoon, 11 Albertans training full time in 2013 at the Aarhus Academy in Denmark, 10 Albertans on the Canadian Jr Team that took Gold over an American Team composed primarily of dual citizens living in Europe, Legitimate HS and MS championships. Just what the heck is going on in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies? Have they cracked the development code and quietly created a Little Iceland?
This past weekend the U.S. Men’s Team played 3 matches against the Alberta Sr Men’s team, winning 2 and drawing one. The U.S. was clearly the better side this weekend, but Alberta proved to be a worthy opponent and a good tuneup for next weekend’s critical match vs Uruguay. But, it does beg the question: Why play Alberta and how did Alberta get good enough to take on the American National Team, albeit one without some of its top overseas based players?
The answer is that somehow Alberta has arguably developed the best grass roots program in the country. Here’s some background on how far that province has come and what’s been developed there in the past 10 years or so.
Flashbacks to the 80s and 90s
I was first introduced to handball in Alberta in the late 1980s when a provincial team from Alberta came to play at the Copa Ventura tournament in California. (Nothing against Swim & Sport’s annual summer classic, but I’ll take the California Sun and the nearby ocean any day of the week over the swamp in Flanders.) The side from Alberta was a good one, but the old Ventura Condors was still able to best them in those tournaments. Also, around that time frame I played in a couple of tournaments in Vancouver. Can’t remember if the Alberta teams were there, but the British Columbia teams were comparable to the U.S. club team I played for.
A few years later in 1993, a provincial team from Manitoba came down to Colorado Springs to play in the Falcon Cup. And, this was a beefed up Falcon Cup as the U.S. National Team used it as prep for the World Championships not unlike the current National Team did this past weekend. As, I recall the Manitoba side even played the National Team close for a while before we eventually blew them out. Then, a year later in 1994 while coaching the Air Force Academy I took the team up to Calgary for a mini-tournament. We arranged the trip with the Calgary reps on short notice, so the sides we played were shorthanded and Air Force was able to come away with the title.
What’s the point of this trip down memory lane? Well, the point is that from my perspective there wasn’t a whole lot of difference between the club programs in Western Canada and the clubs in the Western USA. Some decent players and teams, but primarily a bit on the older side with many players in their late 20s and early 30s. And, organizationally everything seemed a bit rag tag with dedicated volunteers doing the best that they can.
Flash Forward to Today
Some 20 years later in terms of club development and organization it’s more or less the same story in the U.S. A few clubs still remain, some new clubs have sprung up while a number of others have come and gone. Demographically, there’s seems to have been a bit of a shift in terms of the greater percentage of Expats populating club teams, but other than that it all seems familiar. And, perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch for an American who hasn’t visited western Canada since 1994, but I suspect that club handball hasn’t changed a whole lot in British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan as well.
In Alberta, however, something is going on. I haven’t been on the ground there, but what I’ve read and heard suggests that somehow this province has cracked the development code that has long frustrated handball devotees in North America. In 2013, I was surprised to learn that 11 Albertans recently graduated from High School were headed to the Aarhus Handball Academy in Denmark. I spoke with Mike Nahmiash, the Exec Dir of Alberta Handball in this podcast interview and this is some of the information that I gleaned:
- In grades 3-6 around a thousand athletes on 15-60 teams compete in provincial mini-handball championships
- In grades 7-9 around 25-30 teams compete in Jr. High provincial championships
- In High School handball is a sanctioned sport in Alberta just like basketball or volleyball
- In grades 10-12, 3,000 athletes are playing on 120 teams; and teams play around 30-40 games a season
The last bullet seems to good to be true. I’m not calling Mr Nahmiash a liar, but numbers in handball development circles are often inflated. There are solid established teams, temporary teams, fully devoted hard core athletes and athletes that have picked up a handball once in their life. And sometimes those numbers are all added together to make things sound a bit better. That being said there’s no denying the solid evidence which includes:
- Multiple youth teams of varying ages traveling to Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and surely other locations as well. Those trips aren’t cheap and are clearly a sign of dedication in significant numbers. Comparatively, youth players from Alberta have probably made more trips abroad in the past few years than all youth players from the entire U.S. in the past 20 years.
- Real high school championships are taking place. Take a look at these programs and websites. 2014 Rosters: Link Link Mike Nahmiash indicated in my interview that former U.S. Olympian, National Team Coach and NBC Olympics commentator, Dawn Lewis attended one HS competition and was blown away by the numbers of players and the quality of the competition. Comparatively almost nothing exists at the HS level in the U.S. As far as I know the Ocean, NJ girl’s team is the only HS age team in the entire U.S. regularly competing in events.
- This past fall a junior Canadian team beat an American team for the Gold Medal at an IHF Challenge Tournament in Mexico. The Canadian team had 10 Albertans on the roster while the U.S. team was primarily composed of dual citizens living in Europe. Honestly, the U.S. would struggle to even field a team without those athletes who learned the sport in Europe. For certain, we could not field a competitive team without them.
- This past weekend an Alberta Provincial Team played the U.S. National Team toe to toe on American home turf in Auburn. The U.S. team is training together on a daily basis and is likely on average older than the Alberta side. Could any state in the U.S. even field a competitive team of athletes in their younger 20s?
How has Alberta gone from a typical backwater region with very modest handball participation to the hotbed of North America? It’s hard to fully ascertain without being on the ground, but it would seem that a growing cadre of volunteers have been ably managed and led by Exec Director Nahmiash over the course of the past 10 years. And, more importantly it has apparently been done with almost zero outside funding from the Canadian Federation. Seriously, if you think the USA Team Handball Federation is fiscally challenged, realize that our neighbors to the North can only dream of having salaried staff members.
For previous options I have included some top level analysis of pros, cons, risks, costs, and timelines for implementation. At this point, however, I’ll be the first to say that I’ve only scratched the surface as to what’s going on in Alberta and how some of the initiatives that they’ve successfully undertaken could be implemented in the U.S. The key takeaway, though, is that Alberta has been wildly successful in its development efforts. How successful?
Arguably, more new development has taken place in Alberta in the last 10 years than has occurred in the entire history of USA Team Handball. And, having been 10 years or so it’s most likely sustained growth that’s not going away anytime soon.
Certainly at the High School level there is no debate as to the accuracy of that statement. Perhaps at younger ages it is less true, thanks to past programs like at the Boys & Girls clubs in California/Georgia and Rock Handball and current programs like the one Craig Rot has started in Chicago. Still, the fact that such an argument can legitimately be made should get people wondering why a similar effort hasn’t been put in place in the U.S.
But, before I put too much sunshine on the Alberta efforts I’ll throw on a bit of cold water. In particular, it’s not clear if this grass roots development is going to translate to success at the National Level. While Canadian National Teams have started to see the placement of more Alberta players there’s rough parity with Quebec, Canada’s traditional handball stronghold. And while a few players have played professionally in Europe there doesn’t appear to be any breakthrough world class players yet from Alberta. Logically, one could argue that it’s only a matter of time before greater success happens at the Senior Level, but the reality is that it hasn’t happened yet.
Another consideration is that what works in Canada won’t necessarily work in the U.S. Yes, the two countries have a great deal in common, but there are organizational and structural differences in our schools that might make it difficult to duplicate Alberta’s success in an American location.
But, getting back to the key takeaway, Alberta has clearly developed a successful model for development. I’m not a big believer in the concept of “no brainer” decisions that don’t require any due diligence analysis first, but I’ll make an exception in this case.
USA Team Handball should expend some significant time and energy to better understand just what’s happening in that corner of the Great White North. Then perform a full assessment as to how some of that success can be translated to the States.