From Denmark, with love
The Thompson Rivers University WolfPack volleyball program continues to benefit from a Danish pipeline to Kamloops.
Philip Özari, a 6-foot-4 outside hitter from Birkerød, Denmark, is the most recent player to hop the pond and settle in the River City.
“Eventually, I just decided to go and see where this would carry me. It’s my first time away from family,” said Özari, who is studying sciences at TRU. “It was a very tough decision.”
Özari is the fifth Danish recruit to join the WolfPack volleyball program, joining Martin Korsbak Madsen, Martin Ølgaard Stenderup, Stine Bleeg Christiansen and Lykke Degne.
Much of the credit for drawing the Danes to Kamloops belongs to Chad Grimm, the WolfPack assistant coach who spent four seasons playing and coaching in the Scandanavian country.
Grimm played under current WolfPack head coach Pat Hennelly for Team B.C. and the UBC Thunderbirds before making the move to Europe to play professionally.
Since returning to the Tournament Capital five years ago, the contacts Grimm made overseas have helped TRU land highly touted players such as Özari.
“When you see a video, it’s hard to truly tell what type of player you’re getting,” Hennelly said.
“You can’t talk about character and those types of things.
“Chad has connections throughout Europe, so talking to the junior national head coach and the head of Danish volleyball, you can get a sense of what type of person they are.”
In Denmark and across Europe, there is no competitive university volleyball — it’s either go pro or pursue a degree.
“If you’re on their senior national team, then you can make good money playing professional volleyball in Europe. If you’re not, then you’re not going to make great money,” Hennelly said.
“They look at university and say they want a career.”
Hennelly is able to point to WolfPack assistant coaches Behlül Yavaşgel and Robin Schoebel when trying to recruit European players.
Yavaşgel, from Turkey, and Schoebel, from France, graduated from TRU and decided to stay in Kamloops and pursue Canadian citizenship.
“Schoebel bought a house here and Behlül is engaged to be married in the summer. They came here to change their lives.”
The European recruits who return home after graduating have also proved to be great recruiting tools for Hennelly and the WolfPack.
Madsen was influential in Özari’s decision to make the move.
“He just told me it was a good school and a dedicated team,” Özari said. “He told me some general stuff about the players and the coach. The scholarship money was important, too.”
Özari likely hoped for a smoother transition to Kamloops, with injuries stifling his progress on the court.
He sprained his ankle early in the season and severely dislocated his finger upon his return.
“It’s my worst year so far with injuries, so it’s been tough for me to find rhythm,” Özari said.
“I’m still working on it and, hopefully, my game will get better as the season progresses.”
Canadian culture has taken some getting used to for the towering outside hitter, who misses Danish cuisine, in particular.
In fact, he had some food confiscated at the airport upon entering Canada last year.
On the court, Özari is his own biggest critic.
“He puts a lot of pressure on himself to be the guy. In Europe, if there’s a Canadian guy, he’s expected to be the best player,” Hennelly said. “I don’t exactly expect him to be our best player, but we’re recruiting them to be on the court. I’m happy with him and I project him to be a starter in the second half and a real important part of our team for the next five years.”
Madsen was a key piece of the puzzle when the Pack had its most successful season in program history, winning bronze at Canadian Interuniversity Sport nationals in 2008.
Özari has the potential to play a similar role in the coming years for Hennelly’s charges.
TRU (5-7) will play the Huskies (7-5) in Saskatchewan this weekend before returning home to play UBC (8-4) on Jan. 18 and Jan. 19.
The Danish transplant will use those games to get his university career back on track.
“I’m still comfortable being here,” Özari said. “I’m trying to fit in. Right now, I just need to get my game going.”