If the Canadian men's volleyball team wants to secure their first Olympic berth in almost a quarter century, it'll have to do it without the nation's most potent offensive weapon.
The Canadians begin a four-team, round-robin tournament in Edmonton on Friday against Mexico, and they'll be missing outside hitter Gavin Schmitt. The 29-year-old striker needs an operation to repair stress fractures in his right leg. And while they'll miss his power that's equally as impressive at the net as at the service line, Canada is still favoured to get back to the Olympics for the first time since 1992.
"We've played a lot of games without Gavin. He's always injured so I don't think anyone on our team is worried about it," joked team captain Fred Winters, 33, who's hoping his fourth Olympic qualifying tournament will yield his first Olympic experience.
"We want him to get healthy and hopefully he'll be healthy for Rio," said the Victoria, B.C., native. "For us I don't think we have a problem playing without him. The guys aren't lacking confidence at all."
In Schmitt's absence, Canada hopes veterans like Winters, 30-year-old setter Dustin Schneider and 39-year-old libero Dan Lewis will shoulder more of the load.
"We're going to be leaning on those [veterans] a little bit more," said head coach Glenn Hoag. "We'll probably have a little bit more balance with distribution so everybody's going to have to pull their weight and we'll see.
"It's about the group. It's about a system. We may not have the best players in the world but probably, when we play together, we can play against anybody."
Hoag is also focusing on building depth in the program. This weekend's qualifier is the time to showcase Team Canada's developing program that has made tremendous strides internationally in the last few years.
Canada, currently ranked 10th in the world, picked up an impressive fifth-place finish at the FIVB World League in 2013, a seventh at the World Cup last year, to go along with a bronze medal at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto. Four years ago, Canada lost in the decisive match against the United States and just missed out on qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics.
But with the Americans having already secured a berth as World Cup winners, and Canada getting to host this qualifying tournament, the feeling in the group is that this is finally the time.
"We structure our whole national team around the Olympics [quadrennials] so this is the most important tournament we'll participate in," said Winters. "I haven't been able to do it yet and it's a big goal for all athletes to play in an Olympic Games.
"It's a special event and it would mean a lot."