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Passion, crowdfunding helps get Canadian handballers to Pan Am Games

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Yahoo Sports by Sunaya Sapurji | July 20, 2015

PanAm crowdfunding Canada - Passion, crowdfunding helps get Canadian handballers to Pan Am Games

Canada's Casper Bilton holds the ball during the Canadian men's handball team's 34-17 loss to Brazil at the Pan Am Games in Toronto. Photo: Yahoo Sports.

When Dan Devlin stepped on the court for Canada’s inaugural match against Brazil, it marked the third time he had worn the Maple Leaf in the sport of handball at the Pan Am Games.

It also marked the third time he had to pay his own way to get there.

Such is life for athletes in niche sports trying to make headway in Canada, where the biggest challenge is often not on the field of play, but in trying to find funding.

Devlin, like many of his handball teammates male and female, has been forced to crowdfund in order to represent Canada internationally.

“A lot of us crowdfunded to be here which was fantastic because it eased a lot of the stress we had to do for work,” said the 31-year-old medical school student.“Typically when we’re at home we’re working, trying to live our lives, but we’re also working trying to have money available so we can continue to play handball. That’s one of the hardest things.”

Having money for handball means paying for things like plane tickets and ancillary travel costs, gym time, physiotherapy and other expenses which come out of their own pockets.

Related: MAKEACHAMP Crowdfunding for Athletes Raising $50,000 for 200 college athletes

“It’s not cheap,” said Devlin, who participated in the past two Pan Am Games – at Rio de Janeiro in 2007 and in Guadalajara, Mexico in 2011. “I was talking to some of the guys and we probably spend $10,000 to $15,000 a year just in handball-related costs – probably more sometimes depending on how much we’ve travelled that year.

“The reason why we still do it? Like most of the guys on our team, we love to play the game.”

Devlin ran two crowdfunding campaigns through – a site that specifically caters to athletes – in which he was able to raise a total of just over $7,000 to help cover some of his costs on the road towards the 2015 Pan Am Games.

And the story is no different for Canadian women playing handball either. Kim Barette-St. Martin, one of Canada’s top female handballers, is competing in her second Pan Am Games. As a Cégep physical education teacher, she too went online seeking help to fund her current Pan Am campaign. In the six months leading up to the event in Toronto, the women’s national team was only able to play together three or four times.

Related: Canadian athletes look to crowdfunding to pay for their Olympic dream

“It’s really hard to get that good chemistry,” said Barette-St. Martin, on Monday after the Canadian women rallied for a 21-21 tie against Puerto Rico. “But we push hard and we’re a young group so that’s why we are keeping our focus on our goals here.”

At present the Canadian Handball Federation is working towards meeting criteria – like setting up an athlete council - which could potentially see them get at least partial funding from the government through Sport Canada.

Related: Crowdfunding can’t fill gap left by government cuts

“We don’t receive any funding. Zero dollars,” said Devlin of their current status. “There are certain regulations you need to have in place as a national federation to be eligible for funding and our federation has been working on a lot of those things … we’re taking steps, we’re moving in that direction, but obviously it’s moving too slow for us.”

Casper Bilton, one of Devlin’s Canadian teammates, is one of a handful of players currently playing professionally in Europe. The 24-year-old was born in Denmark to a Canadian father and a Danish mother, so he started playing handball at a young age. He currently plays for Ajax Copenhagen and says the difference in how the sport is perceived in Europe versus here in Canada is huge.

In Europe the top players would be akin to NHL stars, with the best making millions in salaries and endorsements. Denmark’s Mikkel Hansen – one of the world’s most well known players – will make $3.5 million over the course of his contract playing in France’s top handball league (LNH Division I).

View also: Northern Credit Union launches crowdfunding website to support worthwhile initiatives in Ontario communities

“I think Canadians would love it,” said Bilton of the sport. “It’s almost like hockey – it’s fast and it’s high scoring – and here you’re allowed to hit without gear.”

Bilton believes if Canada can’t boost its own program financially, they should at least help their top players to make it to Europe where the infrastructure, support and competition are far superior. He points to countries like Brazil, who pump money into placing their players – male and female – in European leagues. Almost all of the players on Brazil’s Pan Am squad are playing professionally in Europe. Their men beat Canada 34-17 and are ranked 26nd in the world. Canada is ranked 48th.

“We need to find some funding to help Canadian players get to Europe,” said Bilton. “What the Brazilians and Chileans do, they get funding from their federations so they get some money to help their players go to Europe and play in a good league. We (in Canada) have so many talents in Tyrell (Johnston), Alexandre (Touzel) and our pivot Phil (Thibeault) – if they had funding to play in Europe they would be awesome players.”

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