After three days full of games, Finland’s Ilves Islanders skated away with the gold and silver medals in a thrilling back and forth final. They showcased a group of talented young players with the ability and hockey sense of much older teams.
Japan, which travelled the furthest to attend the tournament, showed their European friends and North American hosts that the under-represented hockey nation is growing a crop of young, smooth skaters. Japan played a hard team game that was competitive all the way to the end of their tournament.
The New York teams, two from Nassau, two from Suffolk and a Westchester squad had the incredible opportunity to skate on professional ice and receive the superstar treatment of their Islanders heroes. Fostering international good will and making friends from around the world was a bonus; kids this young may not even realize how special that part of the tournament was.
And of course, everyone got to take a few days off school to play hockey. What could be better than that?
“It was really fun,” Maxlee Lerow of Team Japan said. “It’s a really big experience. I’ve been playing with kids in Japan all the time and it’s really different to see other countries play with a different style.”
One of the highlights of the tournament was when 10-year-old Jere Turunen of Finland pulled off a play usually reserved for professional skills competitions. Turunen may not be a household name yet, but the Finnish youngster scored a breath-taking, lacrosse-style goal from behind the net that wound up on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays for Jan. 21.
Turunen beat out John Tavares
’ two goals that night for the number No. 9 spot, an unheard of feat for that age level.
Off the ice, the teams watched an Islanders practice and enjoyed by a private meet-and-greet with the players. Andrew Hartog of the Nassau Islanders even brought home a souvenir from the tournament - a signed stick from Kyle Okposo
“I was on the rails and he walked by,” Hartog said excitedly. “I gave him a high-five and he stuck the stick out and I got it.”
New York City also had a starring role in the Lighthouse Tournament. For many of the international players, it was their first time seeing the bright lights of the Big Apple. They had the sports experience of a lifetime, including a tour of Citi Field, tickets to a New Jersey Nets game and a special visit to the Islanders-Hurricanes game on Saturday night.
“It’s a big city,” Henri Ekman of Finland said. “Everything is…big.”
The week started off with a skills competition for the international teams on Wednesday and wrapped up with a banquet for all teams on Sunday evening at the Marriott. There were a few special guests on hand at the banquet, including the man responsible for this yearly tournament, Islanders owner Charles Wang.
Sunday also was a chance for the players to say good-bye to one another before heading home for another year. Before it ended, the sharpies were brought out and they went around signing each others jerseys.
“I’ve made friends with a couple of the Finnish kids,” Nassau Lions Owen Brown said. “It’s cool.”
Islanders’ autographs may be worth a bit more, but you can’t put a price on making new friends at the rink.