OLD BRIDGE, N.J. -- Rob Gravina just wants to grow the sport he loves.
For that reason, and that reason alone, the 47-year-old engineer for IBM organized a 148-person strong travelling party from Great Britain to come to the tri-state area for a week of hockey and cultural exchange.
Eighty members of that party were members of five youth hockey teams -- from Mite to Midget Major -- under the banner of the GB Lions that will play 28 games in eight days in New Jersey and New York before heading back across the pond.
"For us, this is all about trying to grow the sport in the New York City area," Gravina said just minutes before coaching the Midget Major team in a game against the Old Bridge Knights on Sunday evening at the Old Bridge Ice Arena. "They are trying to grow the game throughout Great Britain.
"Both sides are trying to grow the sport any way they can. It's a deep love for the game that has brought us here."
Gravina has always loved the game of hockey and he has spent his adulthood spreading its gospel around the world.
As a young adult, more than 20 years ago, he played for a North American touring team that went to St. Petersburg, Russia. There, he met several players from England that were also involved in the tournament and fast friendships that survive to this day were forged. Those friendships are the foundation for this goodwill trip that will make hockey stops here as well as Brewster, N.Y., Staten Island, N.Y., Coney Island and Queens before departing Saturday.
The team also took in a Trenton Titans (ECHL) game and has spent down time doing some personal sight-seeing in and around New York City.
The initial bond between Gravina and the British players was so strong that Gravina had offers to go to England and play in the professional league there. He reluctantly passed, but maintained strong ties with those players, especially the ones from the Cardiff Titans. In fact, he regularly travelled to Cardiff to visit, often taking friends with him.
As he got older and involved in coaching youth hockey -- even before his own children took up the game -- those trips often involved the various youth teams he was coaching.
This week's trip is a return engagement with a collection of British players brought together from all over the country.
"Two years ago, we brought a group of kids over there and when we made each stop, the players and the parents wanted to know when they could come to America," said Gravina, who coaches high-school hockey in Staten Island and Mite-level hockey for the Jr. Knights. "It really stirred up the interest to come to the States. Now, it is happening. These kids are from all over Great Britain. Many of them have never played together before and they've come together on this trip to play together here."
Joe Colton, a wiry 14 year-old from Sheffield, is one of those players. A member of the Midget Major team, he was a bundle of nerves before the game against the Jr. Knights.
Colton, wearing a blue sweater with a lion as the crest and No. 19 on the back, plays because his dad played hockey back in the day and introduced him to the game. It is a common gateway for players across Great Britain because ice hockey ranks far behind the more traditional sports of soccer and rugby.
"It's been an amazing trip already," Colton said, looking around as his teammates warmed up for the game. "The hockey is so much better over here. For hockey, I think it's probably a lot better to grow up here."
After a tough start to the game against the Knights, the GB Lions buckled down and held their own, eventually dropping a 6-2 decision in the final game of a five-game slate at the Ice Arena.
But there were few long faces after the game.
The players wanted to talk hockey and many were excited to leave the rink with their new American friends for a night of indoctrination into American culture, said Dave Shafer, hockey director of the Old Bridge Jr. Knights program.
"They were pretty excited," Shafer said. "One of the cool things is a lot of the kids went to the homes of our players and had [sleep-over] parties."
For Shafer, who has been with the Jr. Knights for nine years, it was the culmination of an incredible 48 hours of hockey and community that exceeded his own lofty expectations.
On Saturday night, the Knights held a reception for the Lions. More than 240 people showed up, including Old Bridge Mayor Owen Henry.
For Gravina, it was just another successful stop in a continuing tour to spread the gospel of the game he loves.
"Hockey is such a tight-knight community wherever you go," the coach said. "This is just another example of it."
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