A CHERISHED EXPERIENCE
By Kerry Gwydir
When you travel full-time with a professional sports team, there's more to life than your job title and responsibilities. You become part of a family. Being that I've lived and breathed Islander hockey since I was a kid, trying to separate what you need to accomplish on a daily basis to fulfill your work responsibilities and separating the highs-and-lows that go with working for your favorite team forces you to eventually develop a balance at and, more importantly, away from the rink. Basically, you have to fight your own psyche to "get a life" away from anything that has the Islanders involved with it. If not, you'll emotionally crash at some point during the nearly nine-month NHL grind. Where most of you who read this view the Islanders as an interest or hobby, for myself and the others who work with the team, with every win or loss there are a thousand emotions that can send you to the tratosphere or the depths of the abyss. That's because you see that there are players, coaches and staffers that collectively work together for a chance at the Stanley Cup every day. And when there's a setback or some type of drama, you treat things like you do in your own immediate family. Did I want to run down from the press box and confront Darcy Tucker when he clipped Michael Peca during the 2002 playoffs, much like the rest of you did? Of course I did. But, as I've said, that's the separation that those of us who are a part of the immediate family have to make and why it's hard to emotionally separate yourself from the professional lives that we choose. Don't get me wrong. I cried when Kenny Jonsson scored to clinch the team a playoff spot against the Capitals during a magical 2001-02 season. I've floated on air to be a small part of the 11-1 run that marked the beginning of that year. What am I getting at?
Well, when my boss, Mike Milbury, came to me and asked whether I wanted to temporarily change gears in terms of what I've lived since the end of August - which is the Islanders family - to help him spearhead the effort to coordinate the arrival of two teams from China, I displayed to him my trademark smirk that symbolically relays the message to him, "Are you really sure that you need me on this one?" I won't kid you. After missing out a full year of NHL action, being a spoke in the wheel of the Islanders is what drives me even more than before. Along with Joanne Holewa, our Manager of Hockey Administration, we are the behind the scenes tag-team that gets the Islanders wherever and however it needs to happen. Setting up a new training camp in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia? No problem. Need to get Frederic Cloutier from Pensacola to Bridgeport in a few hours? No worries with us. But, a delegation from China? Well, after watching Joanne cut through months of red tape in terms of visas, airplane tickets and general scheduling, this looked to be a different animal than what we'd all be used to. So, getting back to the gist of things here, China, ok, what did I know about the subject? I knew that Mike authored a very insightful story about his experience over there. I saw the photos and heard the kids were a real pleasure. I'm not sure how Mike was able to do the 14-hour train rides, but for some reason, there was something special in his voice about what he experienced that always piqued my interest. I understood his vision that this was an opportunity to provide children with a dream that they probably never would have had otherwise. But where would I fit into this if I chose to go? Would I just get the players where they needed, thrown on my iPod and just vanish into my own little world once the contingent arrived? I don't care for basketball, so the Yao Ming angle was out for me. How would I relate? Would I want to relate? Would the kids care that I've eaten Chinese food in every NHL city and that I keep a running tab of my favorite spots? Doubtful. At the time Mike came into my office and posed the question in mid-December, he wanted an answer about three minutes after he asked the question. But, putting aside personal feelings and questions, I always believe when the boss wants someone to go somewhere, you do it - regardless of the path or consequences that come with it because he's the one who sets the course. After watching Joanne and Mike almost daily struggle to put this venture together, the answer to go was obvious. On top of it, there was something in my head that said, "If Mike could enjoy this experience, why not me?"
Well, the trip started off fairly well on Dec. 27. No hitches in customs, no baggage issues and the kids from both teams were very well behaved and moved about Newark Airport in a very organized fashion. After nearly a day's worth of train and airplane travel from China, you'd have thought a three-hour ride to Binghamton staring the kids in the face would have had these kids bouncing off the bus seats. Yet, no problems there, either. In fact, Kaihu Chen, the interpreter for the Harbin team and a Neulion employee, introduced me to Harbin captain Zhu Ziang, a spunky nine-year old defenseman who made his North American debut by scoring four goals a day later. If there was ever one early sign that this mission would be an interesting one, it would have been that evening in Binghamton. I guess you had to pose the old adage, "kids will be kids," no matter what part of the earth they are from. Well, that's at least what my co-worker Laurene Gros-Daillon tried to sooth me with -- which definitely eased my angst at that point. But, let's face it, calling non-guest rooms incessantly at 1am was not exactly the way we wanted to represent Charles Wang's New York Islanders on Day One of this tour.
In fact, at one point, the hotel manager came to me to see what we could do. He showed me the phone switchboard and there was one particular room that was making call after call after call. So, when we confronted the kids through Jacob Sung, our other interpreter, the kids told us they were sleeping! Ok, a little white fib didn't hurt and I actually got a chuckle out of their response - after which we removed the phone from the kids' room! That evening turned out to be the lone true obstacle for this trip, and, in retrospect, they kids were still on 3pm Beijing time and were a bundle of energy, personality and had their own unique humor. As the tournament in Ottawa commenced the next day with the billet families meeting their Chinese counterparts, you could sense there was something special happening. With each day, the sight of what was a supposed language barrier posed no threat to communication between the Chinese children, their billet families and us staffers. Hockey and, more importantly, friendship became the vernacular throughout the trip. Seeing the Canadian families come out in force to every hockey game for the Chinese hockey players and chant, "Qi-Qi-Har!" and "Har-Bin!" throughout every game of the tournament was a testament to how involved the billets became in these kids lives - even if it was for just a week. I saw the billet families and our own staffers put their arms around the kids after the players were shedding almost endless tears after their playoff losses. The gifts these people gave these children on breakaway day in Ottawa were more than the hats, the Team Canada sweatshirts and other goodies they provided the Chinese hockey players. They gave them something priceless; they gave them an experience that will last forever. There were subtle aspects of the trip that we all came to enjoy, such as watching the Chinese hockey players woof down hot dogs and chicken wings after being reluctant to touch cookies on their arrival at Newark. How the kids gazed at the Statue of Liberty and Ground Zero or being at awe of each Islanders player as they soaked up the presence of hanging out with Rick DiPietro, Garth Snow, Alexei Yashin and the rest of the "big club" or eating dinner with Charles and Mike in Bethpage.
Mike had said from the beginning that this experience was meant to provide a dream for a child who may never have had the chance. He was never so right because this trip became more than a hockey tournament. We all became part of the QiQiHar and Harbin family.
* Chris Stevenson's column, "Milbury Puts Hockey on Map in China" from the Dec. 28 edition of the