Unseasonably warm temperatures melted the outdoor rink at Northwell Health Ice Center this week. For a game played on ice, melting is an existential threat, but inside the Islanders practice facility a melting pot of international hockey players was in full effect.
Teams from Canada, China, Japan, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and the United States made Northwell perhaps the most cosmopolitan place on Long Island, as the six different countries came together to play the Charles B. Wang Hope Cup.
If you're an Islanders fan, or affiliated with youth hockey on Long Island, you should be more than familiar with the annual international tournament. Started by Charles B. Wang, the late Islanders owner, the goal was to bring hockey players from across the globe together for a week of fun, sportsman and cross-cultural learning through a shared love of hockey.
The tournament is in its 12th year, though it's anything but old news. There are always new teams, new experiences and new stories to be told. NewYorkIslanders.com was on the scene all week for an inside look at the international tournament.
TROTZ GIVES LIFE ADVICE TO JAPANESE TEAM:
New York Islanders Head Coach Barry Trotz addressed the media just as he would on any given day on Thursday. He fielded questions from a huddle of reporters surrounding him for about 10 minutes, but he couldn't help but notice the unusual audience eagerly admiring from a few feet behind. As the scrum wrapped up and the media dismissed, Trotz directed his attention to the Nikko IceBucks - a pee-wee team from Japan.
The eager pee-wees wanted to meet the Isles coach and Trotz happily obliged. One of the kids asked if the fourth-winningest coach in NHL history if he had any advice. The response?
"You can be a good hockey player, maybe, maybe not, but you can always be a good human," Trotz told the kids. "That's a choice."
Trotz shared a few more exchanges with the young players and took a team picture with the group.
"It was really good to meet him," IceBucks Jr. Head Coach Nobumasa Kinugasa said. "He spoke to the kids. One of the players told him that he loved [Johnny] Boychuk and [Trotz] said that [Boychuk] was an old school player. [Trotz] told the kids about having a good attitude and was teaching them [having a good attitude] will help them play hockey."
Meeting Trotz was a pleasant surprise and a new experience, but the IceBucks are not newcomers to the Charles B. Wang Hope Tournament. The organization won the tournament three-straight years from 2015-17 and this year is their sixth appearance. For the Japanese players who play on an Olympic-sized sheet of ice, this tournament is an enriching opportunity to gain exposure to other styles of play and levels of international competition.
"It's a good experience for the kids to see outside players," Kinugasa said. "At the top level, maybe Japanese hockey is maybe not as good. The competition at this tournament is good to help the kids get more confidence."
Kinugasa is in his ninth season coaching the IceBucks junior. As a former player in the All-American Hockey League [AAHL], Kinugasa hopes to grow the sport in Japan and expose his athletes to the game at the highest levels. One success story is Yuki Miura, who is currently playing for Lake Superior State University, an NCAA Division 1 team, played in the international tournament in 2009. Continued participation in his tournament is an important part of that initiative.
"I used to play minor pro in the United States, that's why I have experience with hockey," Kinugasa said. "In Japan, still baseball, soccer and sumo still are the sports that are more popular. Hockey is a small sport, but we're trying to make it bigger and bigger. We want to make it bigger and make it global. We want to have our good players in Japan start coming here and showing interest to outside. We want when those kids to get to 15 or 16 age those kids are going to try to start to get outside of the country and play outside. One day, they can make it to the high level professional."
TEAM BEIJING JOINS TOURNAMENT:
Chinese teams have been a fixture at the Charles B. Wang Hope Tournament since its inception back in 2008.
After all, growing the game in China was one of the priorities of the late Islanders owner and the rinks in Harbin and Qiqihar are part of his legacy. That's why two of the three Chinese teams at the tournament bear his name.
This year there's a third Chinese team (from Beijing) competing at Northwell Health Ice Center this week. They have no official affiliation to Wang's Project Hope, but their presence is another barometer for how the game is growing in China.
Beijing Super 10 is the team's name and they are a part of the Beijing Hockey Association, which has nearly 3,000 youth hockey players in the organization. They're two years younger (2010 birth years) than the rest of the pee-wee teams at the international tournament, but that's because they've exhausted their competition in Beijing and were looking for new challenge. They certainly found it, going 0-4 in the tournament - the three Chinese teams combined for a 1-11 record, but it's given the kids a new level to strive for.
"We're here for a challenge. The teams here are three years older than us, so normally we play there. In China, we are the champions (of our age group)." Gigi, Beijing's Manager, said through a translator. "It gives them a goal. They learn a lot here."
This is the Beijing team's first North American tournament, but they are have traveled to tourneys in Japan, Russia and the Czech Republic to play. They've soaked the experience in this week, taking in Islanders games and - every kid's favorite - a trip to Dave & Buster's.
They may be far from home, but they don't have to look far for some extra inspiration. Northwell is home to Team Beijing, the Chinese team training for the 2022 Winter Olympics and all three Chinese teams watched their game on Wednesday night.
Andong Song also carries a lot of cache with the Beijing team, as the Isles' 2015 sixth-round pick, currently on the roster at Cornell University, is the first Chinese-born player to be drafted to the NHL. Gigi confirmed that he's popular in China and an inspiration for the kids.
But it's not just what is happening over here that's helping grow interest in the game in China. Beijing Super 10's manager says that Kunlun Red Star, the KHL team based in Beijing, has also helped grow awareness of the sport.
Competing in a North American tournament has been a fun experience for the Beijing Super 10 team and given their age, this team has the potential to play in the tournament for the next several years.
SLOVAKIA WINS THE CHAMPIONSHIP:
One of the two Slovakian teams - the K&B Stars Blue team - won this year's tournament, beating Canada's representative - the North Shore Winter Club - 3-1 in the final game.
It marked the first win for a Slovakian team, who joined the tournament for the first time last season. The K&B blue team scored the most goals in the tournament, notching 47 in four round-robin games. The K&B team also exacted a bit of revenge after losing to Canada in a shootout in the round-robin.
While winning the tournament is a nice way to cap it, coach Peter Bohunicky said his first priority is to create lifelong memories for his peewees. He was so impressed by last year's tournament that he brought a second team with him this season, allowing more kids to have the unique experience.
"We had the best experience last year and we love to give these experiences to other kids," Bohunicky said. "We are establishing a program where we save money for kids in the future to attend tournaments like this so they can have experiences and lifetime memories. [These experiences] can light the little flame for future hockey. That's what we love to do, so they have something in the future to look up to and go towards the dream."
Mission accomplished, as the Slovakian team won't forget getting to hoist the trophy, or attend NHL games, or their trip to New York.
"This is something special in their life," Bohunicky said. "They aren't going to forget about it ever. They'll have it forever."