ST. PAUL -- There is no direct flight from Christchurch, New Zealand, to Minneapolis, Minnesota. If there were, the 8,374-mile distance would see it clock in as one of the longest flights in the world, which makes it even more impressive that Bret Dougherty and his peewee team from the Canterbury region of New Zealand's South Island traveled even further to be part of the International Friendship Tournament in St. Paul this month.
The 30-year-old tourney brings together kids from all different nations, including the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, for a bit of friendly hockey fun with no winners and losers; scores are kept, but there is no champion or trophy.
Just the opportunity to interact with kids their age from all around the world.
"For most of these kids, this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Dougherty said. "This has been an incredible experience for them."
The young players traveling to the tournament from other nations, as Bret's Southern Knights did this year, stay with the host nation's families, so the 17 skaters and two goalies that made the trip bunked with a participating team from Hudson, Wisconsin, whose players showed them all the local haunts.
They attended the Wild-Rangers game on Saturday, March 18, wandered around the Mall of America and, of course, raided the local Bauer store for gear that's harder to find in their home country.
The cherry on top was taking in a Wild morning skate on Tuesday ahead of the club's match-up with the San Jose Sharks.
Though the players watch NHL teams from afar and a couple of them have cheered for the Chicago Blackhawks and the Pittsburgh Penguins from 8,000 miles away, some of them were decked out in brand-new Wild jerseys with their new favorite players' names splashed across the back at morning skate.
"I think most of them are Wild fans now," Dougherty said.
Even though there are no winners or losers in the International Friendship Tournament, and even though naysayers thought Dougherty's club wouldn't win a single game, the Southern Knights have only lost once so far. They have one more game in the State of Hockey before the long journey home on Wednesday.
Most of the players will have aged out of the peewee level before the tournament returns to Minnesota six years from now, so Dougherty has made sure that his team soaks up how special the game of hockey is here. As a Minneapolis native, he knows firsthand.
"I've tried to instill in them that this is hockey holy ground," Dougherty said.