The Little Big Challenge: TRU’s Inexpert International Hockey Team

Participatory feature story where I share how a group of international and exchange students at Thompson Rivers University learned the most Canadian thing you can learn: how to play hockey.

We could barely balance standing on our skates: some of us had never skated before, and many of us didn’t know how to stop. For us, ice hockey was an exotic game. Even though we were familiar with other forms of hockey – roller or field – they were not the most popular sports in our home countries, not like it is in Canada.

The activity was organized by the International Students Activity Program (ISAP) of TRU World at Thompson Rivers University, and it had a group of international and exchange students, inexperienced or novices at ice hockey, getting together to try out the game.

“We know what we have to offer,” said Jilian Folk, ISAP coordinator since October 2012. “You can go out there and explore different things you may not feel comfortable doing on your own. I don’t know if you would go out there and rent hockey equipment, find someone to coach you… so I think this activity is a really good opportunity for you guys.”

As an exchange student at TRU from Barcelona (Spain), I am often asked about Barça, my hometown soccer team, but I never cared much about soccer. Indeed, I’m not interested in sports, but for me, as for many students who signed up, this activity was a good chance to get deeply involved in a game that is rooted in the Canadian culture.

“Hockey dominates Canadian culture. It’s not that every Canadian loves hockey but it is something that connects us, much like football (soccer) is in Spain,” said Craig Engleson, manager of activities and events at TRU World. “Not every Spanish person loves soccer, but there is a common language, memories that are involved with that… It’s the same with hockey here. It’s common.”

This was the second year ISAP organized the winter semester activity.

Our little big challenge was to play a brief friendly game during the intermission, after the second period in the match between the Kamloops Blazers and the Vancouver Giants on Feb. 27 at the Interior Savings Centre (Kamloops), in front of more than 5,000 people. To learn how to play, we had three training sessions – Feb 12, 19 and 22 – at which we learned the basic rules of the game, what a puck is and how to control it.

This is the story of us, inexpert hockey players trying to do our best just for the fun of it.

The Little Big Challenge: TRU’s Inexpert International Hockey Team

For the first training session on Tuesday, Feb. 12, we convened a while before getting on the ice in order to get our equipment. The corridors in the Interior Savings Centre gave us a first impression about hockey: this sport smells so bad. The combined smells of sweat and feet in a confined space grants to this sport a particularly cheesy smell that you never get used to.

On hand besides Engleson and Folk, was a group of Canadian-trained hockey players, mainly TRU staff, there to guide us on our first steps on the ice: Wes Koczka, Adrian Conradi, associate director of International Student Services and Study Abroad at TRU World; Mike Kenniger, TRU’s international marketing director; Karie Russel, the Study Abroad manager and more people from the Kamloops and campus community, including Kalvin Divorski and Jeremy Jenvenne, two domestic TRU students who volunteered to assist and act as coaches for the final game.

While the students who had never been on the ice before slowly skated around the rink to learn the basics, those that could at least balance on the ice got sticks and started training: go around in circles only with the stick, skate forward and try to stop (not just turn as I always did), go around in small circles controlling the puck and, finally, score. The session finished with a chaotic first mini-game.

Attendance at the second training session on Tuesday, Feb. 19, was sparse because of Reading Week. Equipped and back on the ice, we were getting used to controlling the puck, but doing that while looking in front of us at the same time wasn’t easy. Stopping by intention, rather than being stopped by the laws of physics, also wasn’t painless.


The Little Big Challenge: TRU’s Inexpert International Hockey Team

The third and final training session on Friday, Feb. 22 was, indeed, the funniest and longest of them all, even more so than the final game. Everybody was punctual and ready to head to the ice: even those who had first staked only two weeks earlier were now trained enough to keep their balance and manipulate a stick.

After an exercise of passing the puck, we were asked to stay, all of us, in the space between the two blue lines in the centre of the rink, controlling the puck but looking upfront and trying to skate faster. Pretty tough. For a bonus challenge, our Canadian coaches tried complex moves aimed at taking the puck away from us (but to have Engleson’s 9-year-old son take it away from me, several times, was mostly embarrassing.)

The TRU domestic students Divorski and Jenvenne, who’d been named the coaches for the final game, made their teams distributing Blazers T-shirts (blue and white), with the word “Hockey” in many different languages.

The line changes worked pretty well in both teams and, in the friendly spirit of the game, coaches did not establish positions for us as players, so everyone did what he or she felt up to.

Cautiously, I stayed in the defence position, high-fiving the scores and, as a main strategy, keeping the puck away from our side of the rink.

Despite our exhaustion, we decided a group photo was in order to keep a memory of the experience and our new hockey T-shirts.

Often, when I played, I would feel myself leading with my mouth, the ice just 30 centimetres from my face. My worst fear during hockey play was that I would hurt my teeth on the ice, as my big sister had done ice skating about ten years earlier. As long as my missteps didn’t result in serious injury, however, at least I’d have good anecdotes for the days after the game.

On the decisive day, at the intermission after the first period, we found out we were not the only non-professional players that night: a bunch of kids, probably under six years old, got on the ice to play two different matches using half of the rink each. The speaker said they were from Tim Horton’s Hockey Program.

“You brought that beginning of just loving the game.”

– Jilian Folk, International Students Activity Program (ISAP) coordinator

We got ready when the second period started. Still in the dressing room, we knew that because we were not the stars that night, the Zamboni wouldn’t clean the ice for us, as it did for the professionals. Not till we got on the ice did we realize how much difference the lack of cleaning make: to skate was much more difficult.

Having the crowd cheer for us was quite overwhelming. From my position on defence, I was able to see that in addition to cheering us on, people were sometimes laughing at us.

“We are having a laugh at your expense, but we are not laughing at you, we are laughing with you,” Engleson said. “There were moments where the crowd was with you in the game, so happy to watch you trying something different, they feel proud of the hockey and they feel proud to watch you getting into it.”


The Little Big Challenge: TRU’s Inexpert International Hockey Team

The almost-six-minute game felt too short and at times, pretty disappointing. But the evening got better when we attended a reception at the Interior Savings Centre, where more international students and TRU staff were watching the game while food and refreshments were served. We got lots of positive feedback and congratulations.

“They (the audience) loved you guys!” Folk told me the day after. “They loved to see international people were playing hockey and you brought that beginning of just loving the game, of just playing it, not with the competition part, but just to try it and see how fun it can be.” Many of the players that night had never skated before: “I was really impressed with how much you improved,” Folk said. “We had people that I was helping learn how to skate the first day, holding them. I think many of you are better skaters than me now. If you think how far you came with that game, it’s pretty impressive.”

This article is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Wes Kocza. Thanks to TRU’s ISAP (now TRU LEAP) and Michael Potestio (The Omega) for the pictures. Video from TRU World YouTube channel.

This piece was originally written as an assignment for the Feature Writing course on the magazine ‘Paper Trails’, shared on my blog about the experience of studying abroad in Canada, #fromkamloopsI was a Journalism exchange student at Thompson Rivers University (TRU), you can read other pieces written during my experience here

Author: Oriol Salvador

Journalist in the age of new media. Pop culture nerd and social media Jedi. Over ten years of experience producing, managing and distributing digital content on online platforms and social media channels.

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