Team Handball – Toronto, ON

It was bound to happen – my first wound as a gymineer.

Team Handball, or “European Handball”, should by all reasonable accounts be a mainstream Canadian Sport. It’s a team sport, 5-on-5 plus a goalie on each side. It’s physical and it carries over many elements from basketball, like dribbling and passing. It’s also an indoor sport, which in Canada could save you some cash that would otherwise be spent on mittens that fit inside your hockey gloves.

The basic rules break down like this -

  1. You want to score in your opponents net and defend your own.

  2. There is a giant crease that no one can step in except the goalie (it’s a little inside a high school 3-point line).

  3. You can dribble the ball and take three non-dribbling steps before you have to pass or shoot.

Despite its similarities to other mainstream Canadian sports, and the fact that it is an Olympic sport, there’s only one place even close to the Greater Toronto Area where I could find a game to join – The Armenian Community Centre at Vic Park and the 401.

I almost didn’t get to play at all. I showed up at what I thought was the correct building and found a gym, but inside was a banquet with food and people, which I love, but I had to find handball. I asked a nice looking lady who spoke broken English if she knew where handball was being played, and she kindly pointed me down the hall…. to a day care centre.

I then asked one of the cleaning ladies, “do you know if there is handball being played anywhere in here?”

“Only festival, next week maybe come back – are you Armenian?” She forgave me for not being Armenian and told me I was still welcome, but I was saddened. I assumed I’d missed it. I’d have to come back some other time. Then, on my way out, a sign caught my eye – “Armenian Youth Centre”. It looked like a school, plus it had a lot of little kids coming out of it. It seemed unlikely to be the place I was looking for until I saw a little boy come out bouncing a handball, “ Aha!” In I went.

Inside this gym was everything I expected: nets, lines, handballs and handball players. After years of shinny hockey and pick-up basketball, the other thing I was expecting was to show up, tell someone I had read the rules of the game on Wikipedia, and then start playing. But this is a team. While drop-ins are welcome, you should come expecting a workout.

When 5:25 rolls around, the coach steps forward to let us know we’re already 10 minutes late. So we grab balls and line up at one end of the gym. We spend 20 minutes going up and down the gym doing different drills; some fairly basic, some involving manoeuvres very specific to handball.

Within five minutes I hear the coach ask from behind me, “It’s Jamie right?” He lets me know that when I am dribbling, I am basically breaking the rules on every bounce. In handball you have to keep your hand on the top of the ball when dribbling, you’re not supposed to touch it at all from the sides. My basketball roots were betraying me.

Most of the basic skills were very easy to pick up, and I was keeping up with the team no problem. One thing that took some getting use to was the “stick-um” wax that players applied to the ball. It’s a gooey concoction that leaves your hands feeling like you’re four years old and just ate some nuggets with honey sauce. It makes catching the ball a breeze, but it requires you to modify your dribbling and throwing a bit. The next portion of the practice was were the real learning curve started.

We moved into some shooting drills and some one-on-one coverage drills. The first thing that stuck out to me about the shooting drills was this:

Goalies in almost every sport are a bit crazy. Handball jumps to the top of that list.  The ball is about the size of a volleyball, but probably three times as heavy, and guys can whip it from about 4 feet away when they jump over the crease. To fortify their bodies goalies wear a mouth guard a long shirt – yet our goalie had no hesitation to take some bruises. In fact he seemed to enjoy it.

When the one-on-one drills came, we played a mirroring game with partners. You would mimic your partners movements, and then on the coaches signal one of you would rush the other as if trying to score.

I was the defender first, and again my basketball instincts lead me down the wrong path. I stepped up and planted my feet, sort of looking to take a charge, or stay in front of the oncoming player.

I was way off.

In this game, you don’t just stand your ground on defence, you attack. You can’t tackle someone off their feet or trip them as they go by you, but you are fully expected to meet them head on and wrap up their arms as they come in and try to shoot over you or jump around you. It got fun.

For the last hour or so of practice we played a half-court four-on-four game, which is what all the accompanying video is from. I had to lay the camera down and just let it run, as there were no available camera operates to help out, but the film still gives a good idea of the flow of the game.

The game’s also where I sustained that wound, a gusher of a bloody lip (not really), delivered by the shoulder of a player I was guarding as he went to spin through me – gotta stand your ground!

I don’t only recommend trying out Team Handball (handballontario.com), I also recommend catching a game or doing some research online. It’s a fun game to get into, but also entertaining to watch. Just remember to bring some baby oil, otherwise you’ll be sitting here like me ruining your keyboard with your waxy fingers.

P.S – Because I get a fresh reminder about the rules of copyright infringement every time I upload a video to youtube, I decided to take a new direction with my videos’ accompanying music. I hope you enjoy it (much thanks to freemusicarchive.org)