SANDCAST: Canadian road dogs Will Hoey and Jake MacNeil have no exit plans

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SANDCAST 5/26/2021-Will Hoey-Jake MacNeil-SANDCAST
Jake MacNeil passes a ball as Will Hoey prepares to set. Photo/FIVB

It was a simple ask that the attendant working customs at the Sofia International Airport had of Will Hoey and Jake MacNeil: Do you have your exit itinerary? Here they did an unusual thing, something not typical of your run of the mill traveler: They paused.

How to explain their predicament?

“Uh,” Hoey recalled telling the attendant on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “Sure.”

They didn’t have an exit itinerary. They were already on their fourth week of a road trip with no end in sight. Already, they’d hit Cancun for one week, Florida for two, and had no exact plans for what might come after the Bulgaria one-star, where they finished fifth.

“We don’t know,” Hoey said. “Once again, as this is recording, we are not sure where we’re going next.”

They’re Canadian road dogs, those two.

They’d long since bought the ticket to this beach volleyball life.

Now they’re taking the ride.

How it is that two Canadian 20-somethings wind up in the middle of Europe playing professional beach volleyball is always a matter of curiosity. As Hoey and MacNeil tell it, there are two paths into the sport, though both diverge from the same root: Hockey. It’s a Canadian past-time, hockey, what baseball or football is to Americans. The same as every American boy has picked up a bat and ball, most every Canadian has laced up a pair of skates and picked up a stick.

“We kinda started the same way every Canadian kid starts,” Hoey, 26, said. “Until you make the decision to stop playing hockey or the decision is made for you.”

The decision was made for Hoey. He stands 6-foot-10, nine inches taller than your average NHL player. He grew out of one sport and into the next, falling into the indoor volleyball scene, playing middle blocker. He wouldn’t play beach volleyball on a real beach — it is awfully cold in Canada, and the majority of practices are done at an indoor facility — until the stakes were highest, at a qualifier for the U19 World Championships. Didn’t have the most promising practice the day before that tournament, either.

“It went abysmally,” Hoey recalled. “I remember at the end of the practice, we sat down with the coach, and she said ‘Is there anything else you want to work on?’ And the other coach goes ‘Yeah can we teach this guy how to set?’ ”

“Oh,” Hoey thought, “this is going to go well.”

And here’s the funny bit: It actually did go well. Hoey qualified that morning with Liam Kopp, a springy defender from St. Catharines. They’d be thrown into a brutal pool at World Championships, which included eventual gold medalist Michal Bryl and Austria’s current top blocker, Martin Ermacora. Hoey and Liam lost every match in that World Championships, a result that could have gone one of two ways: It could have dismayed Hoey to the point of quitting before his career even began; or it could have shown him the life that could soon be laid out for him.

“I’m not sure how, but I ended up falling in love with it,” Hoey said before immediately correcting himself. “Well, I know how. This sport is second to none, with the people you get to meet, the places you get to see, and the commitment you need to make yourself better I think is special.”

MacNeil’s father could still use a little convincing that beach volleyball is second to none. As Hoey mentioned, there are two ways into the sport: One is hockey deciding you’re not fit for the ice, the other is deciding that you’re not fit for hockey. But Jake MacNeil was fit for hockey. To the point that he was getting calls from scouts in the OHL, the next rung on the ladder before the NHL. He’d skated with the likes of Connor McDavid, and many others currently populating NHL rosters.

He had a bona fide future in the sport.

But there was something missing, the ingredient that’s difficult to label. Passion isn’t the proper descriptor, for MacNeil was passionate about hockey. There was just something about the beach, an ineluctable pull that, somehow, some inexplicable way, had MacNeil gladly putting in conditioning workouts.

“We sat down and had a big family meeting and at the end of the day, I was a talented hockey player but I didn’t love hockey,” MacNeil said. “I loved beach volleyball. I loved spending every minute at the beach and all the other small stuff you have to do that maybe isn’t as fun — the conditioning, the workouts. But I still love to do it because of how much I love being on the beach, and at the end of the day, it was a difficult decision but it was the right one. I have no regrets looking back.”

It’s a bold thing to say, given the current climate, of both the world and the manner in which Canadians have to compete. Because of the travel restrictions imposed by the Canadian government, Hoey and MacNeil can’t really return to Toronto, where they would have to shell out their own money for an extended hotel quarantine. They can hardly enter the U.S., either, what with new restrictions limiting travel of non-citizens from Europe into the U.S. It has put them in a perpetual limbo, living out of a suitcase, a hotel in Cancun, a hotel in Florida, a hotel in Bulgaria, buying one-way flights with no plan as to where the next one might go.

“We’ll be, uh, somewhere,” MacNeil said from the hotel in Bulgaria. “You’re never on a fixated schedule as much as you’d like and then with COVID, we’re already traveling and alone in these countries and on top of it now it’s do you have your COVID test? Make sure you test negative. Do you have your pink stickers? Is it on the left or right side of the badge? Did you have your test 72 hours ago or 84, because if it was 84, you might as well go home right now because you’re not playing. It’s bizarre, man.

“That’s the beach volleyball life.”

Not that either of them would trade it. MacNeil wouldn’t reverse his decision and pick up his skates again. Hoey, despite an alarmingly long list of setbacks in the past three years — foot, shoulder, COVID — has no intention of stopping any time soon.

“It always gives you a new appreciation for the sport when you come back, and I’m always coming back,” he said.

Not just coming back, either, but rising. And fast. Hoey and MacNeil have been oscillating between the fourth- and fifth-ranked team in the Canadian federation for some time now, competing with various partners over the previous few years. But small breakthroughs are being made. They’ve both qualified for multiple three-stars. They’re getting shots at four-stars. Their resume of notable wins is lengthening.

“We’re just waiting for our big breakout and we’re excited to get going again on the road this year,” MacNeil said. “You get to travel around the world, playing the sport you love, it’s not a bad gig. This office is not bad.”

Where the office will be next week, they’re not too sure.

Their exit plans aren’t anywhere in the foreseeable future.

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