MARKHAM, Ont. – If the bright red balls whizzing around the gym at 120 kilometres per hour don’t get your attention, the jarring sounds of them thumping competitors will.
Forget about the playground game that children play at recess. If Monday’s national team practice was any indication, the dodgeball played at this week’s world championships at the Markham Pan Am Centre will be a wild, eye-darting experience.
The sport is a mix of power and deception combined with agility, defence and co-ordination.
“If you really pay attention to it, it’s a lot of intensity, it’s a lot of athleticism and it’s a lot of strategy,” said Canadian head coach Victor Gravili.
And mention the 2004 movie “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story” at your peril.
“The Dodgeball movie is like Caddyshack to golf,” said Dodgeball Canada vice-president Alex Svetlovsky. “It’s like asking Tiger Woods about the gophers on the golf course.”
For the uninitiated, live dodgeball is like the sporting equivalent of a multi-ball pinball game.
Balls fly around at breakneck speed. Players who aren’t whipping balls are faking throws or doing their damnedest to get out of the way.
The ball itself weighs 140 grams, is seven inches in diameter, easy to grip and is soft and cushiony. The sound upon contact is much worse than the pain, which is minimal -although the occasional “face shot” can sting.
Canada is a world powerhouse in the sport in both men’s and women’s play. The national men’s team won gold at last year’s world playdowns in Melbourne, Australia while the women’s side took silver.
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Big things are expected again at this year’s championship starting Wednesday. The men’s team is virtually identical to last year with all eight players from Toronto or surrounding area.
The women’s side has four Toronto players with others from Elmvale, Ont., Charlottetown, Ottawa and Winnipeg. A second Canadian entry – dubbed Team Maple Leaf – has been added to both eight-team fields as a replacement for Pakistan, a late pullout due to visa issues.
Wearing black shorts and red Canada shirts with a white Maple Leaf emblazoned in the centre, some players took turns chucking the ball against the wall Monday like baseball pitchers getting loose in a bullpen.
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Others practised dodging techniques as teammates fired the ball at them from about 20 feet away. They also worked on rush drills, where players race to the middle of court to get their team’s balls at the beginning of play.
The basics are fairly simple. In a broad stroke: get hit and you’re out. Catch a ball and the thrower is out and one of your teammates returns to the floor.
Six players per team and six balls on the floor. When a team’s players are all out, the opposing team gets a point. The team with the most points after 40 minutes wins.
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“I think the biggest misconception is people think that it’s a bully sport that is really easy to be good at as long as you’re strong, and that’s not true,” said Canadian middle player Halen Sky. “There’s plenty of people that have great arms but they can’t dodge at all and they can’t catch.”
The sport requires more than just a “grip it and rip it” approach. The faking, ball-pumping and hesitation are all critical to a team’s success.
“It’s constant action, constant thinking, moving on your feet, lots of throwing,” said Svetlovsky. “It’s a great fun time.”
Many players started in local leagues and worked their way up to the elite level. Malaysia, the host of the first world championship in 2012, is also expected to contend.
The Canadian women won gold the first two years while the men finished first in 2013, ’14, and last year.
Just hold the comparisons to the 2004 comedy film starring Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller. Most players enjoyed watching it but stress there is more to dodgeball than over-the-top costumes and dodging wrenches.
“It really started the (dodgeball) trend but we’re trying to continue that and show people that this is a serious sport,” said Canada winger Jason Mergler.
The playoffs begin Friday and the finals are set for Saturday.
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