The United States men's hockey team entered the FIH Series Finals in Bhubaneswar as the third lowest ranked side among the eight nations that are participating in the tournament. With the likes of South Africa and Japan in their pool, the US team's best bet would've been to finish third in their group and play the crossover match to make it to the semi-final.
Just three days into the tournament, and having played two matches, the US are now in contention of directly qualifying to the semis. After beating higher-ranked South Africa 2-0 in their opening match and thrashing Mexico 9-0, the US will now face Japan for the top spot in Pool B. It's not just the scorelines that are impressive. The way they played the two matches " with fluency in their attack and a robust defence that didn't concede a goal yet " shows that the US players really worked hard to make it count because the opportunities to play higher ranked teams doesn't come often for them.
The good start to the tournament and the chance to make it special means a lot to the players of the national team. Majority of the players in the US squad don't play 'field hockey' on a full-time basis. The popular version of the sport in the country is ice hockey, while the women's field hockey scene is much bigger compared to the men's hockey.
The captain of the US team, Ajai Dhadwal, doesn't play full-time either. His day job involves coaching the women's hockey team at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Michael Barminski Jr's is a similar story. Barminski Jr opened the scoring against Mexico in the third minute, and he added one more in the 53rd minute. The midfielder's energy and finishing skills stood out in the match, as did the professional quality of his game, but Barminski's actual work is that of a geologist.
"We don't get paid to come out and play here. It's for our pleasure and I love representing the United States. I work out on the oilfields in Los Angeles during the day and I train at night for the hockey," Barminski said during an interaction with Firstpost.
Barminski says he loves hockey. According to him, "he lives, breathes, eats and sleeps hockey". The first time he came in contact with the sport was when he was seven. His teacher had introduced the sport to him and asked him to try it out after school hours. His mother also played the sport, and she encouraged him to take up the sport. Since then, Barminski has been playing the sport.
A keen follower of international hockey, Barminski followed the Hockey World Cup last year and feels privileged to play at the same venue now. He looked at some of the international players during the tournament and tried to pick their best qualities. When asked about one such player, Barminski said, "Mandeep Singh, he's a legend. He's one of the guys I look up to. It's inspiring to see somebody who is so committed to the sport and do so much for the country. You look at guys like that to emulate and try to do the same things."
The US women's hockey team is ranked 12th in the world. The team finished fifth at the 2016 Rio Olympics, beating the likes of Argentina, Australia, and India. The funding for the women's team is much better and they also play the sport at the college level. The men often travel to Europe to play in various league and clubs in Germany, Netherlands, and Belgium to hone their skills. Barminski calls it 'decentralised training'.
Parmeet Paul Singh, simply known as Paul Singh, plies his trade in a European club. Apart from studying for a college degree, Paul plays for the HTC Stuttgart in Germany. Coming from a family with Indian roots, Paul was introduced to hockey at a young age, but his hockey journey mainly took off because he belonged from California.
A lot of players from the US squad come from the state of California and they have been introduced to the sport by Tom Harris, who founded the annual California Cup International Field Hockey Tournament aka Cal Cup in 1972. "A lot of us are from California and that's because of Tom Harris. He built a hockey complex back in the 70s and it has been around till now. A lot of us still play there," Paul told Firstpost.
Harris has been a fan of field hockey since the late sixties when he first saw the sport at the 1968 Olympics Games in Mexico City. It all started from just a 20-second clip of the sport that was showed on TV which got Harris hooked. Harris then played the sport at the insistence of a friend and he figured he really enjoyed it.
"I was 35 or something when I started playing at my University (California State University in Long Beach). I have been playing other sports but this was very active. In hockey, you always have to do something. Unlike baseball, where you are standing around half the time or sitting down half the time," Harris said. Now in his 80s, Harris is in Bhubaneswar to cheer for his beloved team.
Harris' two nephews are also part of the US team in Bhubaneswar. He says he introduced the sport to Patrick and Sean Harris when they were just five or six and feels proud to see them donning the national colours.
The US has always been at the forefront when it comes to sports. At the Olympics, the US usually clinch maximum number of gold medals, often topping the medals' tally. They dominate swimming, athletics, and gymnastics. The US women's football team is one of the best in the world while they also excel in basketball, baseball, and American football. The field hockey, despite decent progress by the women's team, is still struggling to find popularity.
"We don't have many players playing the sport. Other sports have money behind it, the tradition, the TV coverage. This sport doesn't have any TV coverage at all so it's taking time," Harris said.
But with Los Angeles hosting the 2028 Olympics, field hockey might get much-needed boost in the country. Harris, sounding a bit pessimistic, wants the teams to work harder to get ready for the future Olympics Games. FIH Series Finals might not be a bad place to start.