EDMONTON — A week ago, fullback Jeannot Esua was preparing to leave the tropical climate of Cameroon, as he was set to join his new club, FC Edmonton.
Just a couple of days after arriving in Canada, he was in a wilderness camp in subzero temperatures, making fires from what was available in the forest and learning how to bring down prey and then dragging the carcass back to camp.
Did Esua get lost? No.
He was part of FCE’s retreat to a wooded camp about 100 km west of Edmonton. The players were there to hone their survival skills, like a Canadian Premier League version of Man vs. Wild.
“Coming straight from Cameroon, I didn’t really imagine what it was going to be like,” said Esua. “I just braced myself for it. Then I came straight to Canada and I went right into the woods. But the experience was great; my teammates made it a very wonderful experience for me.”
And, playing the role of Bear Grylls was none other than coach Jeff Paulus, correct? After all, as a former Royal Canadian Navy sailor, FC Edmonton coach Paulus knows all about military drills and wilderness training. But the idea to go on the camp actually came from goalkeeping coach Lars Hirschfeld, who we’re told kinda likes going into the wilderness.
“The plan was to get them out of their comfort zone,” said Hirschfeld. “And they came through it with flying colours.”
“What a lot of people don’t know about Lars is that he’s a big outdoorsman,” added Paulus. “He’s done a lot of the courses, a lot of the training. He’s lived out there for a week… Honestly, I learned more skills out there in two days than I did in my basic training in the military.”
In fact, Paulus admitted that, nowadays, he kind of, well, hates camping.
“My idea of camping is an all-inclusive resort,” Paulus added. “I did the military training and, as difficult as it was, I never wanted to do it again. So, I did it again.”
The players were divided by age — the senior players against the juniors — and were given tasks to do over the two days they were out in the wild. They had to build a fire from scratch. They threw spears and shot arrows at targets (the prey) and then dragged the “carcass” (a heavy log stood in — no animals were harmed in this production) back to camp. They ran an obstacle course. They built ladders using rope and wood. They made their own meals.
“They were brilliant — all of them,” said Paulus. “At first, there was apprehension, the players said ‘this is crazy, what are we doing?’ But, on the Thursday night, we’re sitting around a huge bonfire, and they were all thankful. They all thought it was one of the best experiences. They really came together. Lars, who has years of professional experience, told me he’d never seen a team come together like that, in a single day. They looked like they’d been together for months.”
Esua said that the bonding exercise worked well.
“They’re trying to build a family, not just a team,” he said.
While FC Edmonton was in the wild, Pacific FC held its team-bonding exercises on the beaches of Tofino, the Vancouver Island spot known for its great surfing.
“I think the beach looked really nice,” said Paulus. “I hope it wasn’t too hot for them. That kind of goes with the West Coast culture, I guess. I loved it.
“Our guys were in winter coats, working in subzero temperatures, doing military-type exercises, and they (Pacific) were having strolls in the mountains.