Local team skates circles around cultural gaps in overseas tournament

Photo by Edward Tien

Photo by Edward Tien

Youngsters slicing ice in a beeline for a puck is a cherished Canadian image. In the spirit of helping to establish a similar scene in China, Richmond-based Seafair Atom A1 Islanders attended the inaugural Canuck’s Cup in Shanghai (Jan. 1–3). The Islanders were the sole team representing North America.

The Islanders (between the ages of nine and 10 years) faced seven other teams from Beijing, Taipei and Shanghai. However, the trip’s central purpose explains Cody Kusch, Seafair Minor Hockey vice president, was to enable an off-ice cultural exchange and create memories to last a lifetime.

“The hockey part is only one piece of it. How we interact off the ice is more important to us,” says Kusch.

Savouring each dimension of the journey

Bicky Gundarah, MVP of the Islanders’ last game, sampled fish eyeballs and enjoyed bargaining at the markets. The team shepherded Gundarah throughout the trip, as his single mother was unable to accompany him.

“My team is amazing,” says Gundarah.

For Niko Tsakumis, age nine, the most memorable parts of the tournament were winning bronze and what followed immediately afterwards.

“At the end of the Bronze medal game, we exchanged jerseys [with Taipei]. I did it so I could remember the tournament and have good memories. I’m probably going to frame it,” says Tsakumis.

The Islanders’ opposing teams’ polite gestures impressed Islanders right winger Aidan Teixeira.

“They always said good luck and bowed to the fans,” says Teixeira.

Like Gundarah and Tsakumis, Teixeira also forged new friendships.

“We connected really well [through hockey] and they could speak pretty good English so we could have good conversations together, talk about life and things like that,” says Teixeira.

Nurturing hockey roots in Shanghai

The tournament emerged from Seafair coach Aaron Wilbur’s connection – initially arranged by a Chinese Seafair dad – with the Century Star hockey club in Shanghai. Wilbur has been developing his relationship with the organization for the past three years by periodically coaching and running clinics in Shanghai.

In Wilbur’s experience, hockey in Shanghai invoked the same community spirit and passion to which he was accustomed in Canada. But it was still subject to growing pains, particularly in the areas of structure and organization.

“What’s really different over there is that, in general, none of the parents grew up playing [hockey]; and in most cases, none of them grew up with the experience of playing on a team in an organized sport,” explains Wilbur. “I think that, up until about 10 years ago, the thought of having kids play a recreational sport for the sake of recreation didn’t really register with their culture.”

Since his first visit to Shanghai, Wilbur has watched the interest in hockey grow at “unbelievable” rates. In the past three years, the Century Star Club has seen a 400 per cent increase in the number of new player admissions. So, for this growing league, the tournament was a milestone event, which included a skills competition, awards banquet and opening ceremonies.

“I believe it’s going to be the first time [for the Chinese teams] to experience something on this kind of a scale,” says Wilbur.

Laying groundwork for cross-cultural connections

With their invitation to the tournament arriving six weeks prior to the event, the Islanders raised funds for the trip by selling ad space and Canucks SuperSkills tickets. Their efforts cut each traveler’s expenses by half, thereby facilitating the trip for all 17 players and the 24 parental and leadership escorts.

Upon settling the financial necessities, the Islanders began developing ideas for bonding with their host team.

“Canada is the mecca of hockey, so we wanted to make sure that [if] Seafair and our Atom A1 team were involved, [that we left] a legacy behind,” says Kusch.

Edward Tien, the Islanders team manager, explains a shoebox swap (designed to inspire friendships) was arranged. Along with a letter about themselves and their lives in their home country, the shoebox held other items significant to the players, such as their favorite candy, chocolate or comic book.

Other gifts of pucks, apparel and mini sticks were dwarfed by a banner – weighing over 150 lbs –
created by the Islanders. Forty-eight Canuck and Islander-signed pucks were painted and arranged in the shape of a Canadian flag to form a piece that Kusch describes as a symbolic gesture.

“It’s a thank you to the Shanghai skating club. While at the same time, it’s a commitment to them to be a sister association for a lifetime,” says Kusch.

Seafair Minor Hockey Association: www.seafairhockey.com