Canada – strong handball traditions and optimism about the future

I am convinced that many of our readers, both in the United States and globally, would be interested in learning a bit more about what is going on in handball in Canada. Not too long ago, Canada tended to be a perennial participant with respectable performances in the World Championships, especially for women, but in recent years it has been quieter. So the traditions are there; what about the future?

Ward Hrabi has been the President of the Canadian Team Handball Federation for about 7 years now. His handball background also includes a period as an IHF referee, with nominations to Junior World Championships, and he remains active as a referee, coach and player “for the fun of it”. Elections are coming up in the new year in his Federation and he has told me he is ready to make himself available for yet another 2-year term.

[i]CA: Ward, how did your long involvement with handball get started? Isn’t a ‘normal’ young man in Canada supposed to get into ice hockey instead?[/i]

WH: Here in Winnipeg I was able to play handball in both grade school and high school, so I got hooked at a young age. And then I just continued: I was a player, I got into coaching and refereeing, and I got involved in starting developmental programs, including mini-handball. So with that I also started working for the handball federation in the Manitoba province.

[i]CA: How would you describe the obstacles and opportunities for handball in Canada?[/i]

WH: In many ways the situation is similar to that in the U.S. There is a lack of traditions for handball, so most schools and sports facilities have courts that are too small for full-size handball court, and for most teachers it is an unknown sport. The competition with the other major team sports is overwhelming. On the other hand, it is an easy sport to learn and an inexpensive sport to play. So once people get exposed to it, they enjoy it and get interested. What seems to attract them is not just the simplicity but also the speed and the physical contact.

[i]CA: What about the resources available to your federation for nationwide activities and for making handball known and popular?[/i]

WH: This is another major problem area. Unlike earlier days when we enjoyed at least a very modest funding, we currently get no financial support whatsoever from the government or from the Olympic Committee. They tend to focus on the individual sports instead of the team sports, as the return on the money in terms of medals and image is much cheaper and easier when one supports some hand-picked individual athletes. So we depend on membership fees from our Provincial Federations, a few corporate sponsors, private donations, revenue from sales of merchandize and then, frankly, the sacrifice of the athletes.

[i]CA: You mention ‘provincial federations’; that’s your basic structure in the national federation, isn’t it? Is this approach advantageous or does it have drawbacks?[/i]

WH: It is the natural approach for us, and I generally find it to be working well. The handball people in the different provinces tend to know their particular circumstances quite well, and they are prepared to work hard for their cause. But it is especially noteworthy that the more developed provincial federations show a lot of solidarity with those who are less developed and have limited resources. Those who are ahead provide both technical support and financial support through the CTHF’s budget process. They pay higher membership fees, although this also yields them more voting power in national federation matters.

[i]CA: Tell me a bit more about the different provinces![/i]

WH; Quebec has always been a stronghold, especially after the impetus of the 1976 Olympics, and Alberta has a solid base and is growing rapidly. Manitoba and Saskatchewan used to be the ‘up and coming’ ones but have stagnated. Conversely, traditional powers Ontario and British Columbia almost ‘dropped off the charts’ for a while but are now coming back strong. The other provinces are smaller and lagging in development so far.

[i]CA: So the rather limited resources of the national federation go primarily towards development and grassroots activities in those provinces that need it the most?[/i]

WH: Yes, indeed. We provide training opportunities and educational material for coaches and referees, and we help initiate competition activities. We spend very little on administration and overhead, as we have an office with only one staff member. And, while it is regrettable, all the activities for the national teams, both training camps and international events, are essentially paid for by the players themselves. This of course is tough, both for the younger ones, and for older ones who have jobs but often lose their income while spending their time on handball events.

[i]CA: What about the intensity of competition activities?[/i]

WH: It varies from province to province, but some have high school leagues locally and others have a regular club competition throughout the season. In most provinces, there is a concentration in the major population centers, and a truly province-wide approach would not be realistic. There are also some inter-province tournaments during the course of the year, and clubs have traditionally participated in events across the border in the U.S., on the West Coast, in New York City and in the West Point tournament, and more recently in an exchange between Winnipeg/Manitoba and Minneapolis down south.

[i]CA: On that Canadian – U.S. aspect, do you see a scope for increased collaboration and joint activities?[/i]

WH: The new regime in USATH has undoubtedly had its hands full in recent time, establishing new national programs and a new regional structure. But I would think that over time there will be an increased focus on U.S.-Canadian collaboration. I see good opportunities for pooling our resources in some areas of our work, such as training courses and international contacts. And it would seem that there is a great potential for expanding cross-border competition. Many of our population centers are located within a short distance of the border with the U.S., so such north-south travel might be less expensive and cumbersome than east-west travel which often is over long distances. So at the club or regional level, there should be good opportunities for more tournaments and exchanges.

[i]CA: What about Canadian-U.S. collaboration in an international or continental perspective?[/i]

WH: I think we have traditionally had a very good collaboration, because we find ourselves in similar circumstances in many ways. We are major sports countries where the traditions for handball are limited, but the scope for growth then is virtually unlimited. The importance of supporting this potential has not always been understood, or at least it has not been acted upon, by the International Handball Federation. (Sometimes, due the links between Quebec and France, we have had more help from the French Federation). We are also somewhat isolated from key countries in our huge continental federation, in terms of travel distances, language, culture and tradition. Therefore, it seems especially important to stick together. The same goes for Greenland, of course.

[i]CA: Does this mean that the Canadian Federation supports the recent USATH initiative to break away from the PanAmerican Team Handball Federation, together with some other neighbors, in order to form a more homogenous and convenient continental configuration?[/i]

WH: Yes, we have formally decided to support this initiative. It has the potential to create advantages for all involved. We only hope that the neighbors, especially key handball countries such as Mexico and Puerto Rico will view the situation the same way, and we also hope that our Latin American friends down south will have the right appreciation for this initiative and will not misunderstand our motives. Similarly, while a revised structure always creates the need for new solutions regarding representation in the IHF, qualifying slots for World Championships etc., we do hope that the IHF will see the longer-term advantages and will lend its broad support.

[i]CA: On that note, I want to thank Ward for sharing these interesting insights with our readers, and I wish Ward and his Canadian handball colleagues the best of luck for 2010 and the future beyond! Of course, while it does not include handball, the sports world will soon focus its attention on Canada, when the Winter Olympic Games get started in Vancouver![/i]