For 11 days in January, Ford Ice Center’s Director of Facility Operations Jeremy Emig and Hockey Coordinator Zach Jackson traded in the familiar surroundings of Ford Ice Center and Middle Tennessee for visits to ice rinks and hockey teams half a world away in Serbia and Croatia.
Emig and Jackson traveled to Eastern Europe with Hockey without Borders, a Montreal based non-profit that’s mission is to, “affect positive change in the lives of children and youth by using the values of hockey to promote health, development and peace.”
“Instead of sending tangible things like sticks or jerseys, Hockey without Borders sends coaches,” Jackson said.
Sending coaches to live and volunteer in foreign countries where hockey may be a fledgling sport or suffer from a lack of funding is part of Hockey without Borders’ unique approach to growing the game. Their hope is by sending these coaches, who become leaders, mentors and friends in the communities they join, their impact will be greater in the long run.
Prior to joining the staff at Ford Ice Center late last summer, Jackson spent a year with Hockey without Borders. While January’s trip offered a chance for Jackson to again give back to the global hockey community, it also gave him the opportunity to catch up with the friends he had made during his time there.
“It’s more than just hockey,” Jackson said. “It’s us being brought into the community and you can really sense that. It’s not so much, ‘Oh, they’re coming back and coaching practice,’ it was that we, as people, were coming back – those bonds and relationships are strong, and it’s a special experience.”
For both the coaches and the communities they interact with, playing and learning the sport alongside people who may not speak the same language or have any of the same cultural-norms is a constant reminder of just how small the world, or rather, how big the hockey community, is.
“You just met these guys and they’re the same as the guys you’ve been playing with for years,” Jackson said. “Even though there may be a language barrier, there’s no barrier between interests. There’s commonality. It’s that brotherhood of hockey players – it enables you to build these relationships with people you didn’t know before.”
Although Jackson and Emig traveled to Eastern Europe with the intent to help programs in these countries grow their hockey programs, they returned to Nashville having been reminded of the benefits of a few things as well.
Similar to what Jackson sees with Ford Ice Center’s 8-under and 6-under teams playing cross-ice games and participating in station-based practices, the teams he skated with and taught while in Serbia and Croatia were doing the same things.
“It makes you realize how small the hockey world really is,” Jackson said. “We go to a small town in Croatia and the hockey guys and girls there are the same as they are here in the
States and in Canada. It doesn’t really change and that’s one of the beauties of hockey. It’s global.”
The sport of hockey is growing. This growth isn’t tied to awards or attributes, but rather, it’s about developing the sport and ultimately helping everyone from kids learning the game for the first time or adults taking to the ice of the first time in years, develop a lifelong relationship with the sport.
“It’s not building competitors,” Jackson said. “It’s about building good solid hockey players that love what they’re doing.”
From the looks of it, from Tennessee to Serbia, the love of hockey is growing and that love is bringing people together who may have never otherwise had the opportunity.