Rukavina Is the Latest Professional Athlete to Join the Pakmen Family of Coaches
By DAVID WINER
Life has come full circle for Mississauga’s Niko Rukavina.
Beginning his club volleyball career at the relatively late age of 17 with the Mississauga Pakmen, Rukavina is returning to the fold to serve as a coach beginning next fall.
Since leaving Mississauga, the 27-year-old St. Paul Secondary School graduate has excelled as a player, despite the late start, starring for five years with Queen’s University Golden Gaels before traveling overseas to compete professionally in Jonkoping, Sweden for Habo Wolley and near Stuttgart, Germany for TV Rottenburg.
Coinciding with his playing career, Rukavina graduated from being an ardent student of the game, to a star on the court, and finally, an astute teacher and coach off of it.
And now the Pakmen are about to benefit from Rukavina’s expertise and vast experience after initially giving him the technical tools to carve out a niche in the sport.
Rukavina’s meteoric rise in volleyball has certainly been matched by the Pakmen in his absence. Winners of seven Provincial and two National indoor and beach titles before he joined the Pakmen, the club has since become the envy of the nation, capturing 50 Provincial and 21 National titles. And 2016 has been the most successful year to date. With the outdoor season expected to bring in more gold on the beach, the indoor season resulted in five Provincial and two National titles.
Now, Rukavina and the Pakmen hope to build on that success and expand exponentially on an already winning tradition.
Rukavina is certainly eager to get started.
“When I spoke with (Pakmen founder and President) Kelly (Smith) at U16 Ontario Championships I couldn’t help but get a little nostalgic with him,” recalled Rukavina of their meeting in April. “Its been almost 10 years since I played with Pakmen and I can’t believe how things have changed. What Kelly and his staff have done with this club is incredible and I feel privileged to be able to join that coaching community and learn from some of the top coaches in the province.
“I need to do some digging in my closet at my parents house to find some of my old Pakmen gear,” he kidded.
Returning to Canada from Europe after the 2013-14 season, Rukavina completed his Bachelors of Education degree at Queen’s, and now works as a teacher.
“I spent five years of Undergrad in Kingston (prior to making my pro debut) and I fell in love with the city,” explained Rukavina. “It was a very natural move for me to go back to Kingston and help with my old Queen’s program (as an assistant coach) and start some programming with (Kingston’s) Pegasus club. I love that I started my coaching career in Kingston, but am now ready to move to Toronto where there are some more opportunities for me to be in the gym coaching and teaching. Most of my family is in Mississauga so that will be a nice change from living three hours away.”
Smith, who considers Rukavina one of the best players the club has ever produced despite playing only two seasons on the beach and one indoors, is tickled pink to add to an already talented pool of mentors under head coach Orest Stanko.
Smith said Rukavina made himself into an eventual rightside starter and by season’s end the best player on that U18 team, through hard work and a “natural aptitude” for the game.
“Pakmen is thrilled to welcome Niko aboard as a full time coach in our club this fall,” said Smith. “He was an outstanding player and is already a highly regarded coach. He is very technical and has a wealth of knowledge to pass on to the players.”
“Our goal is to build the best youth volleyball club in the world,” continued Smith.
“In order to do that, we have to attract the best coaches in the sport. We feel we are doing that and are excited about the future. We have the sign out; if you are in coaching for the right reasons, love kids, and want to work in an environment which promotes excellence, give us a call. The calls are coming.”
The addition of Rukavina comes on the heels of another hiring of a former professional player and former Queen’s star, Michael Amoroso, who was hired to be a roving instructor.
And the hirings coming immediately after one another is no coincidence considering how well the two are familiar with one another, both as teammates and competitors on either side of the net.
“Niko has been one of my closest friends for 10 years,” began Amoroso. “Niko and I first met in the summer of 2007 with the provincial team program in Ottawa. We were teammates that summer, before heading to Queen’s University together for our first year. We both coached at Queen’s Volleyball Camp (that summer) and stayed at the same house with a veteran player. For both of us, it was our first real experience coaching volleyball.”
In fact, Rukavina and Amoroso were Provincial team teammates for five years and Canada Games teammates for two. Later, after graduating, Rukavina and Amoroso were opponents with two different Swedish clubs.
“As an athlete,” continued Amoroso, “Niko was a committed teammate, who was able to connect with all players on every team that we played on. His ability to relate to and bond with all of our teammates was integral to our team unity, and without Niko I doubt we would have had any success. As a person, Niko is humble and easy to get along with, qualities that allow him to interact with different ages of athlete seamlessly – athletes of all ages and levels trust him and are eager to learn from him.”
Amoroso fully expects those strengths will be valuable to the Pakmen program moving forward.
“To the club, Niko brings a strong technical base that all athletes need in order to make the jump,” said Amoroso. “Niko is one of the most natural athletes I have ever seen, but his ability to play this sport came from hard work on the finer points of the game. Without question, every player in the club that connects with Niko will be better athletes and people as a result.”
Along with those who were with the Pakmen 10 years ago, Rukavina is especially happy to have Amoroso as a fellow coach in his return to Mississauga.
“Mike and I played together at Queen’s for five years and traveled overseas together,” said Rukavina. “I am extremely excited to be working with him again. Mike and I have not done a lot of coaching together since our playing careers have finished so I am excited to see what type of coaches we have become and can become. We will have different job descriptions, but the coaching community that Kelly and Orest have put together at Pakmen really promotes professional development and working together for optimal results. I think the roving instructor is a great idea for a youth club and Mike is the man for the job.”
Personally, Rukavina hopes to draw on his recent playing career to both connect and instruct Pakmen’s youth.
“As a young, fairly new coach, I believe my biggest asset is knowledge of the game and athlete interaction,” said the 6-foot-4 Rukavina who switched to a leftside for four of his five years at Queen’s, before an injury forced him into the role of a Libero in his final year. “Playing volleyball at many different levels provided me with an understanding of how the game works and the skills required to be successful. Through my Education degree and years of working sports camps, working and interacting with children, is something that comes naturally to me. Every child and every athlete are different and therefore need to be coached differently. I just want to be in the gym, or on the beach as much as possible, learning from, and interacting with athletes.”
Rukavina’s responsibilities with the Pakmen will include heading up the boys’ U13 team, assisting the boys’ U18 squad, as well as working with the house leagues and being a senior high-performance coach in the VCCE (Volleyball Canada Centre of
Excellence – Mississauga) program.
One important lesson, Rukavina learned for himself, is that you’re never too old to take up a sport.
In Rukavina’s case, he dreamed of one day becoming a hockey star.
“Up until Grade 11, my life was on the ice. I was playing hockey five times a week and had goals and aspirations in that sport.”
But despite changing course so late in life, Rukavina has no regrets, and instead embraces all the trials and tribulations athletics threw at him.
“I feel very content with my approach to things in terms of athletics,” he said. “Looking back, the switch from hockey to volleyball was one of the most influential in my life. I don’t think I would change much about my start with volleyball. I was at a disadvantage due to my lack of technical training and reps early on, but it made me work that much harder to achieve my goals. I also believe playing as many sports in the early years is vital for athletic growth.
“In high school I played many sports, including volleyball, but only played competitive hockey outside of school. By 15-16 I was starting to come to the realization that my long term hockey goals weren’t reasonable for me and my high school volleyball coach mentioned trying out for a club to see if I’d like it. The spring after Grade 11, I emailed all the Toronto club coaches asking about their programs and Pakmen was the only one to give me an opportunity. They asked me to play beach that summer with another Pakmen athlete, David Zanchetta. Those first two years on the beach with David were some of the most influential athletic years I’ve had and I was soaking up as much from the game as I could. I then played my first and only year of club volleyball in 18U with Pakmen.”
The instant love and passion for the game became a driving force in raising Rukavina’s volleyball acumen at such a rapid pace, and it is what caught the eye of veteran Gaels’ men’s coach Brenda Willis.
“Niko has been an exceptional contributor in the Queen’s Gaels program,” said Willis of Rukavina as he neared the end of his playing career at Queen’s four years ago. “During his time here, we earned two (Ontario University Athletics) gold medals and two OUA silver medals and placed fourth and fifth in the CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sports) Championships. Despite entering volleyball quite late in his high school years, he caught the eye of the university coaches while playing for Pakmen. Over his career, he developed into one of the best all-around players I have coached in my (now 29) years at Queen’s. He has evolved into (our) best passer, best blocking left-side, and in 2012, he also served as the captain on the floor and the quarterback of the serve receive.”
In his final year, an ankle injury stopped Rukavina from being able to jump for the first part of the season, so Willis moved her captain to Libero.
“That didn’t stop him from contributing though,” said Willis. “He played backcourt for Queen’s until he was able to swing again and did a great job in both positions. So well, in fact, that he was recognized as the OUA Libero of the Year in his final year as well as being named an OUA All-Star.”
“The constant room for improvement and growth within the sport, was what made me finally decide to devote my time to one sport,” explained Rukavina of his driven nature. “I felt I was so behind because of my late start that I needed to work twice as hard just to get to everybody else’s level. I loved that no matter how skilled you became, or how much success you earned, there was always something to get better at. I think this is why I love coaching so much, I have that feeling of just wanting to improve and soak up as many different coaching perspectives as I can.”
It was that same drive, combined with a team trip to Europe with stops in Germany and the Netherlands in Rukavina’s third year that spurned him to even greater heights.
“Playing professionally became a goal for me and a couple of my teammates at Queen’s around our third year of university. I didn’t know enough about volleyball, or the prospects of playing overseas, until I got to Queen’s and then traveled to Europe. Our team trip to Europe really provided us with the knowledge of how pro volleyball works and the level of skill overseas. Being part of a varsity program is great because there were many athletes older that were finishing school and making a decision about going to play pro.”
Yet, once Rukavina tasted the professional life of a volleyball player, he seemed to walk away from the game as a player just as quickly.
“When I left Queen’s and signed my first pro contract, my goal was to play for 1-2 years, experience what professional volleyball is like and to travel,” explained Rukavina. “I had thoughts of stopping after my first year, but was very happy that I decided to play another year in Germany. The professionalism of the club and the Bundesliga was everything I was looking for in pro volleyball. I had some pretty significant injuries that I would have had to deal with before going to play anymore volleyball at that level. I was completely content with my decision to transition to the coaching side of things.”
It’s all those experiences of playing at the club, provincial, national, university and professional levels under a number of knowledgeable coaches that has created the instructor Rukavina is and hopes to build upon with the Pakmen.
“I’ve had the privilege of playing and coaching under many great coaches over my career,” recalled Rukavina. “The two coaches I had in Europe were great and helped me through the transition to a higher level of volleyball, but the language barrier was difficult to overcome to have the meaningful impact a coach can have on a player. As a player, the summers I spent with Team Ontario preparing for the Canada Games really made an impact on me. The coaching philosophies and team dynamic Shayne White and Jeff Chung imparted on us was unlike any other experience I’ve had in sport. As a coach, being a part of the (high performance) and provincial team programs has proved incredibly helpful in my coaching development.”
Lessons Rukavina hopes to impart on players in the Pakmen organization.