This past week, Youth hockey teams from Finland, China and Japan flew from their home countries and across the globe to Long Island, where they would get to play against each other and native Long Islanders in the 4th Annual Lighthouse International Youth Hockey Tournament, which started on Friday.
“I think the NHL has done a wonderful job promoting the game all over the world and will continue to do that,” Islanders owner Charles Wang said. “All of us owners want to see the growth of this sport. This was something that started as a direct connection to China. We would bring those kids here, send our kids to China, etc. Now it’s beginning to open up. Every owner has a lot of things that they do in a philanthropic way that they will continue to do. If we can just focus on what we do with the Islanders, the Lighthouse Tournament, what we’re doing today with these kids, it’s a little thing and you could just start to see it grow.”
Watching all the children interact with one another on and off the ice was something special. Even though they were hindered with the language barrier, they were able to find ways to communicate and cheer each other on.
|Ilves Islanders (Team Finland) vs. Team China compete at the Lighthouse International Youth Hockey Tournament on Saturday, January 22, 2011. |
“When we are getting dressed for the games, we say hello and try to get each other psyched up for the games,” said Eric Friedlander, a member of the Nassau Islanders. “So we all try to stand up for each other and do what we can. There are no real battles here or real rivals. We’re all just having fun playing hockey. Hockey is what we enjoy, so therefore, we cheer for each other and have fun.”
Friedlander is one participant who came back to the tournament after participating last year.
“It’s good to come back and see all the people that I saw last year on the other teams,” Friedlander said. “It’s interesting to see other cultures and how they train their hockey players different from ours. Then we play together and it’s a lot of fun.”
The language barrier doesn’t affect the camaraderie that’s built between the different teams. While the different faceoff in the friendly atmosphere of Nassau Coliseum, their peers huddle against the boards, bang on the glass, cheer when goals are scored, and fist pump each other as they walk by.
“(The tournament) opens the eyes of all the participants to a whole world that’s much bigger,” Wang said. “It isn’t their little Long Island or Westchester. It shows them that these kids are the same, just like them. My son (Cameron) plays in the tournament. In the back, in the exhibition hall and all the dressing rooms are set up, there’s a whole big area, but (all the kids are) there will a tennis ball playing hockey. It’s the coolest thing in the world.”
These kids may get along great and play together like they’re long lost friends, but they’ve also learned a lot about the different cultures, whether that be American, Japanese, Chinese or Finnish.
One of the smallest members of Team Japan, Kenshiro Sasaki, didn’t let his size hinder his abilities out on the ice. He quickly stood out in the tournament as one of the fastest skaters and when asked about it, he said that he began skating when he was three-years-old and added, “Practice, practice, practice on my squad. I run a lot. That’s why I skate fast.”
|Matt Moulson and Kyle Okposo sign autographs for Team China at the Lighthouse International Youth Hockey Tournament on Saturday, January 22, 2011. |
Sasaki’s size was actually something he used to his advantage and he was thrilled to be playing against the different teams in order to learn about the different styles of hockey.
He said, “We have played against other countries (at the tournament). We have seen Finland and the Islanders. Their bodies are bigger and their style (of play) is different. I like seeing different styles of hockey and different people.”
One mother said she was extremely appreciative and said she used the tournament as a learning experience, not just at the arena, but at home.
“We felt so lucky to be a part of an international tournament,” said Alice Cuccurullo, who’s son Steven participated in the tournament for the Rinx. “It’s a chance of a lifetime, to be playing against teams from across the globe. We feel so lucky to be a part of it. We were at home looking at the map and the globe, pointing out where Finland, China and Japan were.”
The local children even skipped their classes on Friday to participate in the tournament. But Cuccurullo said, “This tournament is just a wonderful learning experience. It’s worth the day off from school, that’s for sure.”
No matter what, hockey is a team sport and in order to be successful, you need to trust one another and work together.
“I think the thing is to get them to embrace the sport,” Wang said. “This is one of the great team sports, hockey is. No matter how great that player is on your team, even if you look at the NHL, he’ll only play 20 minutes out of 60 minutes.”
|Lighthouse International Youth Hockey Tournament group photo taken on Nassau Coliseum ice on Sunday, January 23, 2011. |
After two days of non-stop games at Nassau Coliseum, the friendly exhibition style tournament culminated Sunday afternoon when the Ilves Islanders (Team Finland) defeated Team Japan 6-4 in the championship match.
“Today’s (championship) game was a great game,” Islanders owner Charles Wang said. “I was hoping and praying that the game would go into overtime and then to a shootout. That would be the greatest thing. It didn’t happen, but it was a good game.”
By the time the tournament got to it’s final round, the teams were evenly matched and the two teams were ready to battle. When the whistle to start the game sounded, Team Japan took an early lead when Keitarou Yasuda scored. But Jaakko Sulankivi netted a goal for the Ilves Islanders to tie the score at one. Before the end of the first period, the Ilves Islanders took their first lead (2-1) with Elias Viljanen’s goal.
|Nassau Islanders vs. Team Japan compete at the Lighthouse International Youth Hockey Tournament on Saturday, January 22, 2011. |
But the battle had just begun. The score would tie two more times in the second period. Taylor Walsh (an Australian American currently living in Japan) tied the score at two for Team Japan, but Rasmus Rosqvist’s goal gave the edge back to the Ilves Islanders. Team Japan’s only female skater, Moe Tsukimoto, scored to keep Japan in the game and tie the score at three, but Emil Heikkinen lifted the Ilves Islanders 4-3.
Even though the Ilves Islanders had the lead to start the third period, the battle was still in full swing. Futo Takimoto scored the first goal of the period for Team Japan and tied the score for the final time. Matias Nieminen’s goal lifted the Ilves Islanders 5-4 and Heikinen scored his second goal of the matchup to edge the Ilves Islanders to a 6-4 win. Emma Kerkkänen, the Ilves Islanders’ only female participant, was the winning goaltender.Taking Part in Pregame Ceremonies
If skating on NHL sheet of ice wasn’t cool before, it was definitely something to talk about following the New York Islanders and Buffalo Sabres matchup on Sunday afternoon. Representatives from all six teams took part in the pregame ceremonies and skated onto the ice in front of the 10,120 fans in attendance at Nassau Coliseum.
As each team stood around the faceoff circle, one player from each country lifted the flag of their native land. Then, during the first intermission, each team was announced over the loud speaker and they entered through the Zamboni gates to skate a lap around the perimeter of the rink in Olympic fashion.
“We started (the tournament) with the idea that we could take this sport and just create more hockey fans throughout the world, especially in a place like China,” Wang said. “Then, I found out that China actually does play the sport in the Northeast Corner mostly. One day I was talking to the Minister of sports and I asked, ‘How big is (hockey) in China?’ He said, ‘Well it’s a little area. There are only 124 million people there.’ So I said, ‘Wow. Canada has 30 million, so that’s four times the size of Canada. Like anything else, if you start with the grassroots, you will eventually develop a following.”
Whether it’s on Long Island or in other parts of the world, the Lighthouse International Youth Hockey Tournament has definitely touched the hearts of all those who participated and it will be something that they will remember for years to come.