ROAD TRIP... ALL THE WAY FROM CHINA
On Tuesday, December 27, 2005, two youth hockey teams from the cities of Harbin and Qiqihar, of the Heilongjian Province in northeast China, arrived at Newark International Airport. The party of 34 boys aged 9 to 11, and a small group of coaches and local officals were already exhausted. Each team had traveled by overnight train to meet in Beijing for a direct flight to Newark. That flight lasts more than 13 hours. The next leg of the trip was to board charter busses and travel from Newark to Binghamton, and over night there before continuing on to Ottawa, Ontario, the next morning.
Despite the long and arduous journey, each of the boys and the officials traveling with them were upbeat and excited. What an opportunity! To visit the United States and Canada, to represent China in the largest international hockey tournament in the world, to experience the NHL for the very first time was a huge thrill for each of the players and their minders. On the bus from Newark to Binghamton some of the boys from Qiqihar experessed their excitement as well as the responsibility they brought to the trip. "I want to play against the teams from the U.S.A. and Canada! They play hockey all of the time here and there is much that we will learn from them," said Shen Enhzi, an 11 year old forward for the Qiqihar Snow Leopards, and the teams elected spokesman.
As it turned out, the boys from China would have a thing or two of their own to teach the kids from North America. Both teams out skated, out shot and out scored the locals throughout the week until they met oneanother in the Atom House B quarterfinal. In that contest, Qiqihar prevailed over Harbin but only to be turned back by a tenacious group of kids from South Grenville, Ontario later that afternoon. It was a tough loss for the Qiqihar team who had won by an average of six goals throughout the tournament.
Throughout the tournament, the boys from China attracted a huge amount of media attention and had the support of adoring fans. From the moment the busses pulled around the corner to the Westin Hotel in Ottawa, the greeting was exuberant and that was just the beginning of an unforgettable week that would include close encounters with both the New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators as well as a dinner held in their honor by the Chinese Ambassador to Canada. The Chinese teams were a sensation, and the subject of daily media attention from the likes of those who routinely cover the NHL.
Bell Capital Cup Officials Lou Grecco and Aaron Robinson made arrangements for each of the Chinese teams to billet with a local team from Ottawa who would also be participating in the tournament. The enthusiasm of the Cumberland and Orleans Devils was both generous and genuine. The busses were greeted with cheers and homemade signs, chants from the local teams to welcome their Chinese counterparts and ensure that the experience got off on to a flying start for them in Ottawa.
The host families made a huge impression on each of their billets throughout the week, supporting them with every win and eventual loss, making sure that their equipment was right and that they were well taken care of. Their generosity offered each of the Chinese players the opportunity to be part of a typical Canadian family for a week, and to experience a western lifestyle for the first time. That experience will stay with them forever, and was a very special part of their incredible journey.
While in Ottawa the Chinese teams and their hosts had an opportunity that most kids who play hockey only get to dream about. The New York Islanders also visited Ottawa during the week of the Bell Cup, and the fortuitous circumstances created an opening for something very special. Representatives of all four youth teams took the ice with the NHL teams, lining up alongside the pros just before the start of the game for singing of the national anthems.
The Senators hosted all of the players and their host families that night, to watch the game from the sky suites above. For the Chinese, this was a night of many first and exciting experiences. None of them had ever seen an NHL game before or encountered the sights and sounds of the crowd and the show that surround the game. They were glued to the action, taking breaks between periods to trade pins with other youth teams (the Chinese pins were the most sought after of all during the tournament). The Long Island Royals, a youth team from Suffolk County also in Ottawa for the Bell Cup, paid a visit to the Chinese teams for a photo and meet the kids that everyone else in Ottawa wanted to meet.
By the time the busses left Ottawa on Monday morning, the boys had already experienced the opportunity of a lifetime, becoming a part of a western family, playing in the largest international youth hockey tournament in the world (and doing quite well), receiving gifts and accolades from Ambassadors, Nike Bauer Hockey, NHL Teams, their host families and scores of fans. The group was bound for New York, to spend some time with their hosts, the New York Islanders, and see the sights.
During a three-day visit to Long Island the teams from Harbin and Qiqihar were given an opportunity to go behind the scenes at Nassau Coliseum. The boys and their coaches were invited to observe a regular morning practice session, tour the New York Islanders locker rooms and meet a few of the NHL players up close and personal. The visit made for a very exciting morning, and there was much more to come.
On January 4th when the Florida Panthers paid a visit to the Nassau Coliseum, Harbin and Qiqihar players led the NHL teams onto the ice for what would turn out to be an exciting overtime win for the Islanders. The Chinese teams watched the game from ice level and entertained an enthusiastic crowd cheering them on during both intermissions with mini periods of China v China hockey. A day in New York City capped off the trip with an appearance on the Fox News Channel program, "Fox and Friends," a visit to Rockefeller Center, a view from Top of the Rock, a tour of the NHL offices and some time to shop for souvenirs of their journey.
The experience that each of the young hockey stars will take back to China with them is priceless. A lot of hard work went into brining them over, and major thanks are in order for those who made it all possible.
At the request of New York Islanders General Manager, Mike Milbury, two longstanding friends of the New York Islanders organization stepped forward to raise the money needed to finance the trip, Stan Pesnar and Paul Packar. Roy Mlakar, General Manager of the Ottawa Senators, extended the first invitation to include the youth teams in the Bell Cup Tournament. Chris Zimmerman, Chief Executive Officer of Nike Bauer Hockey, made it possible for each of the players to receive a full kit of new equipment for the tournament which is theirs to keep, and will serve them well as they continue to develop their skills.
Thank you to the players, coaches and families of the Cumberland and Orleans Devils. Without your gracious and generous hospitality the boy's visit to Ottawa would not have been as special. Each of you went above and beyond the call! And to the staff of the New York Islanders and NeuLion, Inc. who made preparations months in advance, traveled with the group, served as translators, surrogate parents, tour guides and escorts, thank you very much for all of your hard and dedicated work.
* Chris Stevenson's column, "Milbury Puts Hockey on Map in China" from the Dec. 28 edition of the