With the Slovenian national team clinching its first Olympic hockey berth, and Jarmo Kekalainen becoming the NHL's first European-born full-time general manager, the global hockey community continues to expand.
But one small group from Montreal is doing even more to demonstrate the reach of the sport.
It was just over a year ago that a few hockey players took on the mission of affecting positive change around the world and pursuing cultural exchange through the game they love. They founded Hockey Without Borders, a non-profit organization that already has made a mark internationally.
"It seems like everything is a surreal moment. Walking down the street with a hockey stick in Turkey in July, everybody is looking at you wondering, 'What are you doing here?'" Craig Klinkhoff, 23, one of Hockey Without Borders' ambassadors, said. "One thing that stood out for me is the people that we're able to meet through hockey. We've met such incredible people."
The group's first trip was in Subotica, Serbia, in December 2011, where they worked with the local club team and helped mentor local youths through hockey. Since then, the group has worked with players in Turkey and the city of Sarajevo while establishing plans to do the same in Bulgaria and Croatia.
"You just learn so much about life in these places," Klinkhoff said. "It's so incredible when we get to meet these people. They embrace us because we're hockey players. They just take us in like we're best friends after meeting them for 15 minutes."
The power of these connections may have been exemplified best during the group's time in Sarajevo, when they suited up with the Sarajevo Wolves of the Bosnian National League. It was then that the Hockey Without Borders team met Ismar Hadzic, a goaltender who had spent months training without a helmet and wearing sparse equipment. Thanks to an equipment donation from a Swedish team, Hadzic was playing in his first organized game.
"Ismar pulled me aside and opened up to me about how much hockey, particularly this game, meant to him," Klinkhoff said in an email he sent from Serbia. "His desire to play fueled more than a year of hard work. He was determined to get that chance, and now that he had succeeded, all he wanted was another shot."
That is just one of countless international relationships Hockey Without Borders has established in barely over a year. And with the program hoping to grow, the group is looking to expand its reach and establish long-term relationships with communities across the globe.
"We just want to encourage kids to get on the ice and take life lessons," Klinkhoff said. "They're playing it for the love of the sport. Hockey in these places can do so much good. You see it in their faces. You can see how much it means to them to get on the ice."