NEWS
02/16/2012 06:27 EST | Updated 04/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Veterans Ken Pereira, Rob Short lead Canada's quest for Olympic berth

After 17 years as friends and teammates, and close to 700 caps between them, Ken Pereira and Rob Short are hoping to play together on the Olympic stage one final time.

The two lead a Canadian men's field hockey team that, along with Canada's women's squad, will be battling for an Olympic berth beginning Saturday in New Delhi.

"To play in London would be an absolute dream," Short said from the team's recent training camp in Vancouver. "This one, as Kenny and I look to the end — as we both have to — we know there isn't another chance after it. So it's just huge for both of us."

Qualifying will be no small feat. The Canadian men and women must win their respective six-team tournaments to book tickets to the Games, a difficult back-door qualifying route that Canada has never successfully navigated.

Canada, at least, has experience on its side. Pereira, a native of Unionville, Ont., holds the Canadian record for international appearances with 342, and is the most-capped player in the tournament. Short is only two behind him. Each has almost as many caps as the entire Italian team combined (381).

The two veterans — Pereira is 38, while Short is 39 — played in both the 2000 and 2008 Olympics, and would love nothing better than to make one more trip to the Games as their careers wind down.

"You're always thinking, man, the window is always closing, the door is always shutting on a career. . .," said Pereira, the Canadian captain. "We were 34, 35 at the last (Olympics), and we were thinking then that it's pretty tough at that age to go to the Olympics. And we got in and it was awesome that we qualified and it was so much fun.

"To do it again, four years later, and four years older would be pretty sweet as well."

Both the men and women open Saturday against Italy. The top two teams after the five-game round robins will meet in the final. The women's final is Feb. 25, while the men's final is a day later.

Canada's No. 14 men's side is the second-ranked team in the tournament behind India (No. 10). The Canadian women (No. 20) are ranked fourth in their tournament and are looking for their first Olympic berth since 1992.

Stephanie Jameson of Vancouver (162 caps) is the Canadian women's most experienced player.

The Canadian men could be on a collision course with India for the final — what would surely be a noisy affair at New Delhi's 20,000-seat Dhyan Chand National Stadium.

"Coming from Canada it's always fun when you can play in front of big crowds, even though they cheer against you," said Pereira, whose Indian-born parents will both be in attendance. "It's just something new for us because you come from Canada where field hockey isn't very big, you may get 100 people at one of your international games here.

"Some guys I'm sure will be a bit nervous, with the pressure. . . but I think for me personally and some of the older guys you kind of feed off the energy of the crowd."

Some of the younger players worked with a sports psychologist to prepare for the big crowds.

The Canadian men narrowly missed clinching a London berth back in October at the Pan American Games, losing 3-1 to Argentina in a heartbreaking final. The women finished fourth there.

"For me, these next six games are the most important games of my life," Short said. "I'm just hoping that all the boys from the youngest guy to the oldest guy — which is me — think the same. We're just so looking forward to the challenge."

The two vets, whose careers have taken parallel paths since they made their national team debuts in 1994, hope to suit up for Canada a few more times, regardless of whether they qualify for London.

The 2013 World Cup qualifying tournament will be held in the Toronto area.

"It would be fantastic if I could play in that, it's in my hometown. . . 340 some-odd games I've played for Canada and I've only played four in Toronto," said Pereira, who carried Canada's flag at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Commonwealth Games. "I definitely don't want to stop playing just yet. I know it's close, but I don't want it to be this year or next."

The 2014 World Cup is in the Netherlands — where Short has plied his trade professionally for the last 14 years and Pereira played for five years.

"We still love it and we're still fit and we're still playing really well," Short said.

Short hopes to eventually coach Canada's national team, calling it the "second-best job in the world."

Both veterans admit they dread the day they have to pack away the competitive sticks.

"For me, it's just been a dream come true. I just wish I could do another 10 years," Short said. "It's such a great way to live. Sure you put a ton of stuff on hold, and you focus purely on your sport, but in the end, it's all been so worth it."

The Canadian men's round-robin schedule has them playing Poland on Sunday, Singapore next Tuesday, India on Wednesday, then France next Friday.

The women play India on Sunday, Ukraine on Tuesday, Poland on Wednesday, and then South Africa next Friday.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previsous version had the men's finals on Feb. 25th instead of the 26th.