Monday, January 24, 2011

The Universal Language of Hockey

I'll admit one thing: I can be a bit of a curmudgeon. So when Charles Wang and the Islanders hosted their annual Lighthouse International Youth Hockey Tournament for the past three years, it didn't register on my radar.

I really didn't care too much about some wobbly 11 and 12-year-olds trudging up and down the ice, half of the team falling to their rears when they reached the opposing blue line. Especially when I could see the Islanders do that on any given night.

So it came as a real surprise to me when I showed up at Nassau Coliseum this past weekend and saw real skill on the ice. Whether it was little Kenshiro Sasaki from Japan cutting through defenders or Team Finland putting up 32 goals over two games on the same day, a lot of these kids could play. And even though the crowds weren't close to capacity, the energy from local parents in the seats cheering their sons (and a few daughters) on was easy to see.

Rather than relay the results from the games, or tell you that the Finns were the eventual champions, the tournament is about more than that. For most of the foreign players, this event allowed them to travel to the United States for the first time in their young lives. As if that wasn't significant enough.

"I think this [tournament] will provide the kids with memories, maybe not for right now, but some years into the future," Finnish coach Juha Peri opined. Playing in an NHL arena is special for the team as well, he said, though Finland does have an outstanding top professional league which has produced a crop of stars over the years. Peri explained that this was the largest venue any of the players had ever skated in.

One of the members from Team China also mentioned the Coliseum as something completely new and exciting for him. Wang Jinghao, who wears #22, said the arena was very colorful (though some Islanders fans might not feel the same way). He went on to say that he was used to a much harder ice surface back home, due to the frigid temperatures of northern China, which can typically dip down to around –13 degrees Farenheit (-25 Celcius).

Every child I spoke with was eager to see what New York City and Long Island offers its citizens. For that, tournament organizer Michelle Winter and her staff also scheduled trips for the youngsters to a local Dave and Buster's arcade, a banquet for all of the participants, autograph sessions with Islanders players, and even a national television appearance.

Though I believe any trip to the New York metro area is exciting and educational, this was more than just about scenery and making the tourist rounds. Charles Wang's tournament is about making friends and memories for life, uniting cultures, and sports acting as a universal language.

The head coach of Team Japan, Kenji Kousaka, said it best. "Children have the power to make a friend. Even though they do not speak [a common] language, they try to make a friend through hockey."

There were many examples of international friendship that I witnessed this weekend; too many to cite, in fact. But I promise you it went on in the post-game handshakes, in the hotel lobby, during shared meals, and who-knows-where else.

When the Islanders promoted the tournament via press release earlier this month, the heading on the mailing read "Hockey Unites Cultures on Long Island". If that was the goal here, I believe it has been reached. And there was some surprisingly skilled hockey played too, by the way.

For their help this weekend, I wish to extend many thanks to Taka Shirai, Chihiro Shinzaki, Coach Kenji Kousaka, Coach Juha Peri, Elias Viljanen, Wang Jinghao, Michelle Winter, Katrina Doell, Dyan LeBourdais, David Hochman, and of course, Charles Wang.

Please enjoy a selection of photos from the championship game played between Finland and Japan (click to enlarge):

Early action from ice level as Japan (red) and Finland (black/gold) battle for the title.

The contest was close throughout.

The players from Finland watching their mates from the bench.

Team Japan celebrates and changes lines following a goal.

Finland wins a game that was tight until the very end. Final score: Finland 6, Japan 4.

The two squads pose for a mixed picture immediately following the final horn.

New York Islanders General Manager presents medals to runner-up Japan.

The victors are presented with gold.

Charles Wang, owner of the Islanders, fields questions and praises the participants.

Representatives from all eight tournament teams are present at center ice before the NHL game begins.

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