A Little in-line strategy; Ottawa teacher went to Venezuela to teach humanities and ended up coaching in-line hockey,
Raphael Lopoukhine

Canwest News Service
991 words
12 July 2009
Ottawa Citizen

Brad Little couldn't help but be a little disappointed at this weekend's showing of his sophomore Venezuelan in-line hockey team in the world championship at Varese, Italy.
A rag-tag group ranging from 15 to mid-40s, the team practised four times a week in the run-up to the tournament, and their aim had been to improve 2008's dismal last-place finish.
Alas, it was not the case, and the Venezuelans finished last again after losing 4-1 to Japan on Saturday.

It shouldn't have been surprising, given what Little and the team have to work with. Their home rink is less than ideal: half the official size; boards that gyrate with the lightest bump and are also crooked, combining with the misshapen floor to send pucks flying in all directions; and there's a missing pane of glass in one corner. Even at that, the "new'' rink is an improvement on the previous year's training facilities.

Before this year's world championship, Little worked on instilling the fundamental systems of hockey: positioning, defensive-zone coverage and standard up-the-boards breakout plays.

"Some of these players have played the game for 10 years, and they don't have the hockey knowledge that I would associate with a 10-year-old back home,'' Little said.

Unfortunately, the world tournament revealed a flaw in Little's back to basics approach. In an e-mail he wrote during a break in the schedule, he said the Venezuelan players were "getting blown away on speed."

"Systems don't help if you can't even skate with the other team,'' he added.

Before departing for Italy, members of the Venezuelan teeam had said this year would be different.

"We are more prepared, we have a good team, I think we are going to do great,'' said Jorje Fernandez, 29.

The hopefulness steamed from an injection of Little's coaching talent. Back in Ottawa, while getting an undergraduate degree at Carleton University, a teaching degree from the University of Ottawa and a master's from Carleton, Little used his spare time to coach house league teams at Sandy Hill (five years), plus a couple of summers of coaching Triple-A bantam, and he was also a referee.

"He is great,'' Fernandez said. "He has this ability to teach. ... He's a teacher.''

Little never thought he would be coaching the team when he moved to Venezuela a year ago after a two-year teaching stint in Guatemala. As a humanities and geography teacher at an international school in Caracas, he sought out an in-line club league just for the chance to play. After a game a couple months ago, he was asked, "or told,'' to come on as coach by a few of the 2008 national team members.

The lone Canadian in a community of a few hundred players was quickly put to work.

Because of his broken Spanish, it has "certainly been a challenge,'' Little said.

So, when he coaches, it's in English, slow and loud; he usually acts out the drill to get the point across. Fortunately for Little, Fernandez spent eight months at the University of Toronto, studying English, and he often translates for the coach. Four players on the team speak English, but the rest have no idea what Little is saying.

In-line hockey is a growing sport in the region, with in-line federations in 19 of 21 Latin American countries, according to information listed on the International Roller Sports Federation website, the French body that organized the event in Italy.

Having to import all the gear makes playing the game difficult in Venezuela, where the currency is artificially pegged. Each citizen has a "Cadivi limit" they can spend in U.S. dollars outside of the country.'

"You can't find anything here, you need to go to the Internet and get all the stuff online; it's becoming more and more difficult because of all the controls we have," Fernandez said.

"I need to ask my mom to lend me her Cadivi limit, her foreign exchange control limit. I need to ask my mom, my sister, my dad, my friends ... I need to use as much as I can."

This also means Little is forced into the role of equipment purchaser and distributor. Before the world championship, he made a trip to Florida and filled a suitcase with new items.

The players paid him for the equipment at the parallel rate of exchange, which was three times as much as they would would have paid at the pegged Cadivi limit.

Despite the significant costs and difficulty associated with getting the gear, though, Little said hockey in Venezuela was not just a game for the rich.

"I would say there is almost a fifty-fifty divide between people that have a lot of wealth and people who don't,'' he said. "The hockey community here has been very generous by providing old sticks and equipment."

Now the Venezuelans just need to work on performance. The closing loss to Japan followed earlier defeats against South Korea (8-2), Mexico (8-2), Colombia (4-0, partly because Little instituted a "trap" defence for that one), Great Britain (9-1) and Mexico again (7-3).

For now, then, it's back to playing league games and preparing for next year, still hoping for better results.

Colour Photo: Raphael Lopoukhine, The Ottawa Citizen / Brad Little coached house league in-line hockey at Sandy Hill for five years while he completed his masters degree in Ottawa. ; Colour Photo: Raphael Lopoukhine, The Ottawa Citizen / Venezuela's team for the 2009 world in-line hockey championship made do with a run down, half-sized rink and other training challenges. ;