Guelph’s Ryan Clutterbuck has a challenge as the head coach of the Canadian national women’s football team at this year’s world championship tournament, but it’s a challenge he’s going to relish.
“It's a surreal experience to walk out in Finland, to walk to the practice field, to meet people from across the country and then to have a chance to compete at the highest level,” he said in a video call from Finland where the International Federation of American Football’s women’s world championship tournament is currently being held. “Its a dream.”
Of course the tournament brings the challenge of playing the unknown. It’s not like professional or university football where the teams play every single year and have plenty of film on each other to study in a search for tendencies.
“This is a huge challenge in the sense that you don't know what to expect going in,” Clutterbuck said. “We played Australia in the opening game in 2017, but that has very little impact of what we can expect (this year, other than the colour of the jerseys.
"We have a sense of what they're going to look like coming out of the tunnel, but it's different coaches, it's different players. They're saying the same thing about us so the challenge works both ways. From a coaching standpoint, it's very tough because you have to prepare for all of the potential systems and schemes you might see.”
This is the fourth version of the world tournament and the United States has won the previous three, beating Canada each time in the gold-medal game.
The U.S. won the first one 66-0 in 2010 in Sweden, the second one 64-0 in Finland and the third one 41-16 in 2017 in Langley, B.C.
Clutterbuck was an assistant coach on the Canadian team in 2017 and a little over a year later, and after he’d moved to Guelph, the Toronto native and former Western Mustang tight end was named the head coach of the team.
“I was the offensive coordinator for this team that competed in Langley, B.C., and we won the silver in that what I described as a pretty good game against the Americans. The head coach at the time was Jeff Yausie from Saskatchewan,” Clutterbuck said. “That was his second time as the head coach and with Football Canada, you sort of have an eight-year window. You're not guaranteed eight years, but they can invite you back. That was Jeff's second run at it and so when the applications went out for the head coach, I was so excited to have the opportunity to go after it because the experience as an assistant coach was unbelievable.”
For Clutterbuck, it doesn’t matter the gender of the person in the uniform – coaching football is coaching football. He’s previously coached Team Ontario boys’ squads at the U16 level as well as being an assistant coach with the Western Mustangs and head coach of the London Beefeaters of the Canadian Junior Football League.
“It's a new challenge, but not even specifically having to do with the sex and gender of the players,” he said. “If you're a football coach, you love to coach football. I loved coaching boys and men and young men at the university level because I love coaching football and coaching football with our women's national program is no different.
“It's not exactly the same, but if you love coaching football, you're going to love coaching women's football. That's been my experience. Anytime I talk to a young coach, I try to encourage them to maybe think about because, especially in Ontario, there aren't many opportunities for women in football. You kind of raise some eyebrows. Oh, is that tackle football or is it real football? There are lots of questions that people have because they just haven't seen it. The game is just bigger in Saskatchewan and Quebec for women, but that is changing and hopefully that continues to change.”
While the world championship tournament is usually held every four years, like almost everything else the global pandemic forced the women’s tournament to be delayed a year.
“For us it wasn't even as simple as just pushing it back a year. We had a selection process that was planned and that got cancelled and then it got postponed and then it got pushed back. It was a lot," said Clutterbuck.
" Anybody that's worked in events or gatherings of any sort has had to deal with this sort of thing so we eventually got to a place where we were going to have a selection process in Ottawa and that was just a couple of months ago. We were able to get everybody together there. We did our evaluation and now here we are. It's really nice to be back playing football.”
Originally the team was to have provincial selection camps and then a pair of regional camps – one in western Canada and the other in eastern Canada, from which the final team selections would be made.
“It actually went pretty well,” Clutterbuck said of this year’s process. “Actually getting everybody together in Ottawa I thought was actually from a valuation standpoint quite good.”
That was a couple of months ago and the team’s players and coaches are settled in Finland after trips that took 36 hours or longer and having to get used to the seven-hour difference in time zones and Clutterbuck has a pretty simple goal for the team.
“With any tournament, one of the messages I would share with the team is our expectation, our ambition, our goal is to reach our potential,” he said. “If we do that, we're going to be just fine. We'll see how many points are scored. We'll see when the dust settles, but if we reach our potential I'm going to be very, very happy with how things went.”
And he knows that all members of the team are likely going to cherish their participation in the tournament for years to come.
“It's about making memories that are going to last your entire life,” he said. “There are so many things in football that have happened and you forget them and you move on and you live your life and then you have these moments like 2015 when I was coaching at AT&T Stadium (in Houston), Team Ontario, and playing that American team. That will be with me forever. And the 2017 women's world championship, the training camp at Simon Fraser, the games themselves in Langley at Trinity Western and meeting coaches and meeting people from across the country. How did I get so lucky to be able to do this?”