FIH Series Finals: Growth of hockey across diverse communities aiding USA's development

Spread of the hockey along West Coast was the genesis of USA's success at the FIH Series Finals, says captain Ajai Dhadwal whose father played for Delhi and Indian Railways hockey teams.

The diverse culture of the USA men's team is a proof that hockey is not just sport in the sub-continent.   -  Biswaranjan Rout

Before the FIH Hockey Series Finals began here, when someone asked USA captain Ajai Dhadwal if his team was hopeful of going all the way despite strong competition from higher-ranked Japan, Poland and South Africa in its group, he simply smiled and said, “that’s the plan”.

The plan has worked perfectly for the side, even though it lost Dhadwal to a rib injury in the very first game. USA drew with Asian Games champion Japan and upset South Africa to end on top of Pool B and earn a direct entry to the semifinals. “The exciting thing about HSF is that it brings teams that are not as high ranked an opportunity to compete against the best in the world. Rankings matter but they are not the be and end all of everything, it’s important to keep your head down and try and get results with the strategies that you come up with,” Dhadwal told Sportstar in an interaction.

For a team that has to not just fight for quality competition but also resources with other sports and the women’s national team – that finished fifth at Rio – the results here have been heartening. But what is more important, says Dhadwal, is the fact that the sport is spreading out of its traditional image of a subcontinental sport and making inroads into other communities.

“I think it is really important because then it will generate more number of those who want to play. On the West Coast Tom Harris very much pioneered hockey and even started the hockey ground at the Moorepark College. Pretty much half our team grew up playing in that area, plus there is a predominant population of non-subcontinental guys playing on the East Coast as well, so it’s diversifying,” Dhadwal said. Harris, incidentally, is in town for the tournament.

Like most other hockey players across the world, the USA team is made up of part-timers who earn a living doing other things. Dhadwal himself is an assistant coach with the women’s team at Rutgers University in New Jersey, although he was born and raised in Los Angeles and picked up the stick at five following in his father’s footsteps, who played for Delhi and Indian Railways before moving abroad.

USA on Friday would take on South Africa for a spot in the final after the African champion beat Russia 2-1 in the quarterfinals on Wednesday to keep its Olympic dreams alive. The other quarterfinal saw Japan thrash Poland 6-2, three of its goals coming in the third quarter, to set up a clash with host India in the last four. The last time the teams met – at the Azlan Shah Cup -- India had won 2-0.

The results

7-8 place - Mexico 4 (Yamil Mendez, Roberto Garcia, Maximiliano Mendez, Alexander Palma) bt Uzbekistan 3 (Gaybullo Khaytboev, Ruslan Satlikov, Okhunjon Mirzakarimov);

Cross Over Match 1: Japan 6 (Koji Yamasaki 2, Kenta Tanaka, Kenji Kitazato, Shota Yamada, Hirotaka Zendana) bt Poland 2 (Mikolaj Gumny, Mateusz Hulboj)

Cross Over Match 2: South Africa 2 (Ryan Julius, Nqobile Ntuli) vs Russia 1 (Georgii Arusiia)