Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Vancouver man aims for new Olympic sport

© Copyright (c) North Shore News. We are proud to be able to re-run this story from Vancouver here in its full flavor with the kind permission by the copyright owners. This material is under copyright by Andy Prest  and the North Shore News. Original text was published here 

Greg Beaudin has worked for six years to develop the sport of floorball locally and nationally in the hopes that Canada becomes internationally competitive. The game is different to floor hockey with no body contact or stick checking, thus allowing fast, agile players to excel.
Photograph by: NEWS photo, Paul McGrath

Greg Beaudin has worked for six years to develop the sport of floorball locally and nationally in the hopes that Canada becomes internationally competitive. The game is different to floor hockey with no body contact or stick checking, thus allowing fast, agile players to excel.
Photograph by: NEWS photo, Paul McGrath

I'M moments away from my first try at the fast paced hockey-style game known as floorball and already I don't like it.

It has nothing to do with the sport itself, the high-tech stick I'm warming up with or the YouTube-worthy moves that players around me are pulling off. This is all about my own legs, lung capacity and laziness.

When North Vancouver's Greg Beaudin, the godfather of floorball in B.C., invited me out to the Richmond Olympic Oval to try the sport, he told me I'd be playing with Jakob Brandstrom and Mack Saunders, a pair of young North Shore whipper-snappers who were recently named to the Canadian national team. Perfect, I thought. A couple of kids to do all the running and play all the defence while I wait for their perfect passes to bounce off me into the net. Moments before the faceoff, however, Beaudin takes Brandstrom and Saunders aside and tells them to put on white shirts - our opponents are short of players and need reinforcements.

Suddenly my team is down to just one substitute and we've lost our spryest legs, instead subbing in the legs of a reporter suffering from the early stages of Overall Lethargy Disorder, also known as OLD. The ball drops, one minute ticks by and my lungs start to scream at me.

"Only 59 minutes to go," I think to myself as I begin to ponder how I will word my post-game apology to my teammates.

At this point readers may have a few questions, such as "Canada has a national floorball team?" and "What the heck is floorball?"

The answer to the first question is, surprisingly to many, yes. To answer the second question, we have to take a trip with Greg Beaudin over to Sweden to meet a hockey legend.

En route to Sweden, we'll stop in Winnipeg, the coldest city on earth. In 1972, Norm Beaudin, Greg's father, became the first player ever to sign a contract with the brand new Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association. In that debut season the longtime pro - Norm had a cup of coffee or two in the NHL but mainly played for farm teams - joined with Christian Bordeleau and Bobby Hull to form the Luxury Line, the first ever professional hockey line to have each player crack the 100-point barrier in one season.

Known as the Original Jet, Norm played 309 WHA games with the Jets from 1972 to 1976, scoring 97 goals and 252 points. Watching it all happen - alongside other rink rats like rascally young Brett Hull - was Greg Beaudin. As the '70s wore on the Jets gained a reputation as a starting point for European hockey players keen on making their mark in North America. Players such as Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg came to Winnipeg at a time when most North American hockey managers refused to add European players to their teams. The talented Swedes and Finns made an impression on young Greg, planting the seeds for a passion that would not fully emerge for another 30 years.

In 1989, Greg moved to North Vancouver to take a job as a golf pro at Capilano Golf and Country Club. He never lost the hockey itch, however, and in 2001 he founded Modern Hockey, a company specializing in innovative products and instruction. Through his business Beaudin formed a relationship with Salming Hockey, an equipment company created by one of the most famous Swedish players ever, the great Borje Salming. On a business trip to Sweden six years ago, Beaudin's future was altered by the Swedish superstar himself. Salming placed a stick into Beaudin's hands, but it was a stick unlike anything he had ever seen. It had a comfortable, golf club-like grip for the top hand that lead into a thin, carbon composite shaft. A hard plastic blade, slotted and vented to allow air to pass through, was attached on the end. The whole thing weighed less than a smallish grapefruit and its height was just slightly above the belly button. For Beaudin, a hockey nut very familiar with the splintered wood of street hockey or the clunky plastic of floor hockey, it was a revelation.

"It felt like magic in my hands," he says as he recalls the moment. Salming dropped a hard plastic ball with holes in it - much like a whiffle ball - at Beaudin's feet. "When I took my first snapshot it just kind of released from the wrist and hit the crossbar at probably around 100 miles per hour. I was like, 'Holy! This stick is loaded!'"

Beaudin was so impressed with the stick that he bought enough to start his own game and brought them back to North Vancouver. As soon as he returned, he called his hockey buddies and set up what was quite likely the first floorball game the province had ever seen.

"We rented some gym space and started a little group," he says. "At first we were six to 10 guys for a couple of months and then it just kept growing."

The rules of the game are very similar to ice hockey - it's six on six including goalies. Forwards and defenders wear no protective equipment while goalies are protected but must stay on their knees and are not allowed to use a stick. One of floorball's biggest selling points is what it's not - it isn't the same as traditional floor hockey. There's no body contact, sticks must remain below the waist and stick-on-stick contact is not allowed.

"Ball hockey and floor hockey, as indoor gym sports, are getting a bit of a black eye because of injuries and incidents that have happened due to aggressive play and stick contact," says Beaudin. "Floorball doesn't have that aggressive style and the equipment is so light and easy for kids to manoeuvre that you don't see any stick injuries or any puck or ball injuries. In the six years that I've been coaching youth floorball, I haven't seen any injuries other than maybe a sprained ankle."

Back at the Richmond Oval, I'm picking up the rules of the game quite easily despite never having seen or played it. For anyone with an ice-hockey or floor-hockey background, the rules are easy. What's not easy for me, however, is getting used to the stick. With practically my first touch of the game I luck into making a nice pass that almost leads to the opening goal. For the rest of the period, however, I'm a turnover monster as every pass thrown my way bounces or skips off my lightweight blade as I struggle to adjust to the feel of the space-age stick. I'm used to handling the traditional clunkers of floor hockey, plastic elephants compared to the whippy cheetahs of floorball.

Our opponents score five or six goals in a row with a disturbing pattern forming - pass up to me, turnover by me, goal by them.

"Maybe we want to play a little more defence," our soft-spoken goalie suggests in the first intermission. "I faced as many shots in that period as I ever have in any full game."

I look up, hiding my shame by pretending to check out the Oval's gorgeous wooden ceiling.

A few minutes into the second period I finally feel the magic. Breaking down the right wing, I take a pass off of the knee-high boards ringing the playing surface and cut towards the net. With a quick flick of the wrists I fire a shot that rips towards the goal, blasting off the crossbar with such force that it flies 20 feet into the air before smacking into the curtain that separates our court from the rest of the action inside the Oval.


I look down at my stick and laugh, amazed that I could produce such power with my unpractised ham-hands. I'm 25 minutes into my first floorball game and already I love it. Unfortunately that's the highlight of the night for me as my legs continue to tire and my hands fail to recapture the magic.

Meanwhile, Saunders and Brandstrom are having no such struggles, busting out what the kids call "dirty dangles" - dekes and fakes designed to make a defender look silly - while running at full speed. In two weeks time they'll both be on their way to Los Angeles with Team Canada to take on the United States in a qualifier for the World Floorball Championships set for December in Zurich.

Floorball is booming in Europe, where games can draw more than 10,000 fans. But in the rest of the world, including Canada, it's still in its infancy. That much is evident at the qualifier in Los Angeles - Brazil was scheduled to attend but pulled out because of a lack of funds. That left Canada and the United States battling each other with two berths in the world championships on the line, winner and loser take all.

The greenness of the sport in Canada is also evident in the greenness of its players. Brandstrom, a Grade 11 student at Handsworth, was picked for national duty despite the fact that he began playing the sport only four months ago. Last year he played midget A2 ice hockey for the North Vancouver Minor Hockey Association, a shifty player with great hands who was likely too small to take his game to the next level. At his mother's suggestion, Brandstrom came out to a floorball event last fall. It was love at first dangle.

"I fell in love with it as soon as I picked up a stick," he says.

Beaudin, now president of the B.C. Floorball Federation, a manager with the Canadian national team and a board member with the International Floorball Federation, saw Brandstrom's potential.

"Not a huge guy but super fast and hyper skilled - perfectly suited for the sport of floorball," he says. "Every youth hockey team has a handful of players who are very quick and awesome danglers. Speedy danglers are a good way to describe a floorball crossover player. These speedy danglers can, within a couple of months and with a kind of addictive attraction to floorball sticks, become awesome players very quickly. Because there's no hitting in floorball, you're eliminating size as a major component. It's more about speed, it's more about skill, it's more about finesse.

Brandstrom was floored when he got the invite to join the national team for the trip to L.A.

"Three or four months and I'm playing on a national team? I can't really fathom it," he says. "I felt like a super-athlete almost. You go from switching from hockey and being at a very low level and then moving to floorball and all of a sudden you're at a national level. It's hard to believe."

Saunders had a little more experience before joining the national team, but not much. He first encountered the game when he was living in Minnesota and his high school team took a trip to Sweden. He and his teammates were skeptical when they first heard about floorball.

"It sounded kind of quirky," he says. His attitude soon changed. "It's everything I love about hockey - the hands, the passing, the shooting, the quickness. It's just a really fun game."

He and his buddies started their own team when they returned home. His interest in the sport grew last year when he was invited to play with the national under-19 team. Last fall, his family moved to North Van and he caught on with Beaudin's crew. Now he's on the national team too.

"Two years ago I was just starting and now I'm playing for Team Canada," he says. "It went from zero to 60 pretty quick. Maybe it slows down, maybe it speeds up. Who knows?"

Beaudin says the national program needs to groom kids like Brandstrom and Saunders if there's any hope of catching up to the European teams that have been playing the sport for years.

"Globally floorball is hypercompetitive and in Europe they're 20 years ahead of us," Beaudin says. "We have a great ice hockey culture - the future for us in this sport of floorball is through players like Jakob and Mack who are young, North Shore hockey players who have just fallen in love with the sport of floorball. They are the future for us. For them to get a chance to play for Team Canada, to travel, to play against USA, to play against European countries in a world championship - this is a major goal of ours to build the top layer of development through young, dynamic floorball players."

Back at the Oval, I'm really dragging while the players around me are still going strong. It's an interesting mix - young and hungry Canadians like Brandstrom and Saunders; older players who have been honing their skills since Beaudin brought the sticks over six years ago; a few relative newbies, including a 14-year-old boy; talented ex-pats, men and women, who tell me they are from Sweden and Finland, Switzerland and France.

Sadly for me we are drawing some attention. Several Hockey Canada bigwigs stop by for a long chat with Beaudin. During the second intermission I'm introduced to a scout from NHL central scouting who has stopped by for a peek.

"How do I look?" I ask.

"Not bad," he replies. "Your feet are a little heavy though."

A few minutes into the third period the scout's words prove eerily prophetic. While flying down the wing in a heated race with an opponent I make my most memorable play of the day, stepping on the lightweight wiffle ball and crushing it flat.

"Is that a foul?" I ask with a sheepish laugh. No, just a faceoff. I take the faceoff for our team and promptly lose it without coming close to touching the new ball.

Experienced floorball players have no such awkward moments on the court. In fact, the sport can be jaw-droppingly awesome. The design of the stick blade lends itself to picking up the ball and whirling it around as if on a lacrosse stick. Such trickery is called Zorroing in the floorball world. A quick YouTube search yields page after page of floorball videos featuring gravity defying stick tricks.

The Internet is where North Vancouver brothers Taylor and Trevor Baron go to check out cool new tricks. At a recent Saturday morning gathering of North Shore Floorball - B.C.'s first floorball club - the Baron brothers wowed a growing crowd of spectators with their mesmerizing Zorros, whipping the ball up into the air and around their bodies with such ease that it appeared it was glued to their blades (go to the Videos section at to see Taylor and Trevor in action).

"Every day we work on it," says Taylor. "We like just playing around, having fun. We always go on the Internet to look for new moves to challenge us."

"We try making moves up by ourselves," adds Trevor. "And then we practise for about a week and then we should probably get it."

Taylor is 13. Trevor is eight. The youngsters learning the game every Saturday morning at North Shore Floorball's current home, the gym at Lions Gate Christian Academy, are the future of the sport, says Beaudin. He's working to make sure it's a very bright future.

The International Olympic Committee recently approved floorball as a recognized Olympic sport. Beaudin was there in St. Gallen, Switzerland in December when IOC executives met with representatives of the 54 IFF member nations to spell out what they needed to do to get their sport into the Games. The programs are already set for the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics but Beaudin believes there's a good chance floorball will make it in for 2020 or 2024.

"Trevor and Taylor, this generation is the Olympic floorball team generation," says Beaudin. "If you're 10 or 12 years old right now, in 10 years time you'll be at the peak national team, Olympic team age group. I think looking at the group of North Shore floorball players that we have in our junior club, we're looking at a few Olympians."

More and more North Shore kids have tried the game. Thanks to Beaudin's efforts, 19 schools on the North Shore - private and public, elementary and secondary - now offer floorball to their students. Right now the North Shore is a testing ground with the rest of the province following behind. But even here there is still a long way to go.

"It's been a struggle to convince many facilities that we're different than ball hockey or floor hockey," says Beaudin. "Floorball can be played anywhere and will not damage the floors and won't break windows and won't be a heavy impact sport. It's a light-impact sport."

Beaudin's plans also extend well beyond the North Shore. The sport is gaining popularity with new Canadians who don't know how to skate, as well as with elite ice hockey players looking to increase their skill level. Many Vancouverites, however, know floorball only as the sport Canucks defenceman Sami Salo was playing when he tore his Achilles tendon in 2010.

"In Canada, my goal is to see floorball replace floor hockey as we know it. Let's do away with these clunky, awkward floor hockey sticks that are in every school gym across the country and replace it with this new, dynamic, high-tech implement that allows for incredible creativity and awesome stick-handling and great play-making."

If anyone can accomplish that goal, it's Greg Beaudin says Nate Leslie, a former pro hockey player who coaches the Midget A1 ice hockey team for the North Vancouver Minor Hockey Association and recently took a position with Floorball Canada, swept up by Beaudin's passion for the sport.

"Without Greg there is no floorball in B.C.," says Leslie. "He's always thinking outside the box - big ideas. His goal is to put a floorball stick in every hockey players' hands, and beyond that. He's not thinking, 'Hey, how can we get 20 kids playing.' He's thinking, 'How can we get a million kids in Canada playing.' That's Greg. Yet he's the one with the gear in the back of his van driving from gym to gym making it happen."

Back at the Oval my team makes a furious late-game comeback, no thanks to me. I'm getting better with the stick but I'm out of gas, staggering up and down the side of the rink, stuck in a rut like one of the arcade stick-hockey men. The final score is 15-14.

The game is a great cardio workout and I am going to feel the burn for a few days. Still, that moment of bliss with that laser beam shot sticks in my mind. It plays over and over like my own YouTube highlight. I can't wait to try the sport again, knowing there's always a chance I'll get to feel a little bit more magic.

- For more information on North Shore Floorball visit nsfa.
© Copyright (c) North Shore News

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Research suggest that eye-injuries are more common in Floorball as compared to Tennis, but less common as compared to Squash (similar to Racquetball).
To minimize this risk of injury Floorballcentral recommend: Use certified protective eye-wear (mandated in many European areas for the youth). Do not lay down on the court. Follow the rules strict on stick height.

Also if you get addicted to this sport - do not blame us!