At first glance, it looks like any ordinary hockey tournament.
Kids in matching team jackets run around the lobby of Northwell Health Ice Center, some are taping sticks, while others throw tennis balls at their goalies to keep them sharp. There are two games going on simultaneously on the two rinks, with cold parents clutching hot coffees to keep warm between cheers.
The tell that this isn't your typical pee-wee tournament is how it sounds. Listen closely and you'll hear coaches calling for line changes in Chinese, stick taps in Slovakian, jokes in Japanese and a few extra ehs for good measure from the Canadians.
This is the Charles B. Wang Hope Cup, the New York Islanders 11th annual international tournament, featuring teams from the United States, China, Japan, Slovakia and Canada. The goal of the tournament is to bring kids from different backgrounds together to compete against each other, submerse themselves in different cultures and make long lasting friendships, all with the common bond of hockey. The Charles B. Wang Hope Cup took place this past week at the Islanders practice facility. These are their stories.
MAT BARZAL AND THE BURNABY WINTER CLUB:
The kids from Burnaby Winter Club - Canada's representative - were a little star struck when Mat Barzal came to visit them at their hotel on Monday.
Barzal is a hero to the kids at BWC, but not just because he's the Islanders leading scorer and the reigning Calder Trophy winner. Burnaby Winter Club was Barzal's minor hockey association growing up and he's one of the celebrated alumni. His jersey hangs on the wall back at the team's home rink.
"It's cool having them out here," Barzal said. "They're coming to the games, and I've seen their jerseys and stuff. That's fun for me and to have those young kids coming up to me and saying they see my jersey back at BWC, that's pretty cool for me."
Barzal visited with the kids, took some pictures and talked to them before the international tournament. He told them he was once in their skates, wearing the same jersey, playing in travel tournaments. The kids were in awe.
"Mathew Barzal played for our club, so to see it first hand in the kid's eyes, it's a great opportunity for them to see what it takes," BWC Coach Angelo Scigliano said. "He takes time to take pictures with all the kids and talk to him. They were star-struck, but he's so down to Earth, makes it easy for everybody."
BWC was a powerhouse at the tournament, going undefeated en route to winning the championship. But a chance to meet Barzal was at the top of kid's highlights of the week - that and getting the pro treatment of team buses, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at the Islanders practices.
"It's pretty good because we get to experience new things and we get to see the Islanders practice," Savin Virk, one of the kids on the BWC team. "The public doesn't really get to see that, so it's a pretty good experience. And we get a private bus and stuff to the hotels, it's pretty good."
Video: Charles B. Wang Hope Cup
CHINESE TEAMS PRACTICE WITH TEAM BEIJING:
Seeing the two teams from China at the international tournament stir up memories for a few of the junior players on Team Beijing, the Chinese hockey team living and training on Long Island.
Anton An remembers being one of the 12 year olds coming to North America to play in the tournament for the first time and he's amazed at how far the program has come since.
"Not too long ago, not a lot of Chinese kids get a chance to leave China to play hockey," An said through a translator. "All the kids who are coming over, they can have an experience like this and later on have a possibility to come here to further their hockey careers."
"He's very happy that it's continuing," the translator added.
That's one of the legacies of Charles Wang, the late Islanders owner who founded the tournament and spearheaded the investment in youth hockey in China. Wang's tournament offered Chinese teams a chance to expand their horizons, play against North American teams and become exposed to a higher level of the game. Now with Team Beijing, these kids have a path to continue their hockey careers in North America when they get older.
"Between last year's roster and this year's roster, at least a third of our players had played in this international tournament," said Patrick Fung, the Head Coach of Team Beijing. "I hope these kids see it as an opportunity. I hope they see North America and playing for our team as possibly an option in the future and something to strive for and look up to what these guys are doing."
Team Beijing practiced with the two Chinese teams on Monday and Fung said he's seeing development year over year. For the kids, it's a thrill to skate with Team Beijing, who are essentially training for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
"It's very lucky for those kids to have the chance to come to the US and train for the six months for the season," goalie Sun Xi said through a translator. "He wishes one day he can do the same."
A FUN WEEK FOR ALL THE KIDS:
Hockey is the common thread that ties these kids from diverse backgrounds together. They all enjoy skating on the outdoor rinks, being together in the locker room and all the other shenanigans that come with a travel tournament.
They can't get enough hockey, piling in to watch the Islanders practice on Wednesday and attending Isles wins on Tuesday and Thursday. They're treated like pros, with team meals and private team buses, adding to the experience.
"It's just been first class from the second we got off the plane," BWC Coach Angelo Scigliano said. "The experience has been fantastic, above and beyond what we thought. Anytime you have that Islanders logo behind you, you know it's going to be done the right way."
But hockey is only one thing they have in common and they're finding out that the kids in Burnaby aren't so different from the ones in Beijing, Bratislava or Baldwin. They all still really like to play games at Dave and Buster's, run around and be kids.
"First of all it's great life experience," Slovakian coach Peter Bohunický said. "Even though they lost some games, at the end of the day, they were so happy because of the other things, so they forgot about the hockey for a little bit and were kids again."
It's a chance to learn about different cultures as well, from how different countries operate on the ice and off of it. That's the beauty of bringing all these unique hockey cultures together.
"Japan gave us some pins and they were so respectful," Scigliano said. "It's just been very nice. Hockey truly is a worldwide game and the respect factor from all the teams has been really fun and we're really blessed to be a part of it."