The closest most people will ever get to China is a cup of wonton soup and a plate of chow mein noodles. It’s a country that until recently was shrouded in mystery and suspicion for millions of Americans.
Project Hope Springs Eternal
The efforts of Project Hope certainly didn’t end when the Nassau County Mustangs returned to New York. The New York Islanders hosted the Lighthouse International Tournament in February, bringing teams from China, Japan and Finland to Long Island for a week of games and a skills competition.
Started in August 2006 by Islanders’ owner Charles B. Wang, the goal of Project Hope is to provide young Chinese athletes with educational opportunities through hockey.
For one New York Peewee team, a trip to China was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that was about more than just playing a few hockey games. It was a chance to experience a world entirely different from the place they call home.
The 11-day trip was a whirlwind tour of foreign faces, breathtaking scenery, new sights, sounds, tastes and smells. And despite the language and cultural barriers, members of the Nassau County Mustangs found that for all their differences, youth hockey players have a lot more that unites them than sets them apart.
“The parents were possessed with the possibility. I told them to run with it so they went crazy selling tickets.”
– Bill Nimmo, head coach, Nassau County Mustangs
As part of the efforts of Project Hope (see sidebar), the New York Islanders have been hosting teams from China in their annual Lighthouse International Tournament on Long Island for the past five years. Last year, they decided to send a team from the United States to compete in China.
In a ticket-selling competition among all of Long Island’s house league teams, the Mustangs won the opportunity by selling almost 4,000 tickets to an Islanders’ home game.
On Dec. 26, 2008, the team was off to Harbin, China, where they would compete in the first annual Charles B. Wang Project Hope International Tournament against three teams from China and a team from Finland.
“It was fun to see the kids sizing each other up… It’s a learning experience for our kids, and it’s great to see the kids from China learning on the ice as well.”
– Dan Bedard, Islanders director of Amateur Hockey Development
After catching some sleep to ward off the jetlag that often comes with 24 straight hours of travel, the Mustangs joined Team Finland on the ice for a morning practice with Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier.
Having two teams on the ice that don’t speak the same language made for a slightly difficult teaching session, but with some body language and visual demonstrations, the coaches from both teams were able to make sure all the kids knew what was going on.
“You do this as a kid and then get to do it as an adult and you just can’t explain the joy on the faces of these kids,” said Trottier. “The youthful enthusiasm that I saw and that I felt as a 52-year-old hockey player was truly phenomenal.”
“Seeing people from different parts of the world come together in the name of hockey was incredible. Watching them get to know each other, watching them communicate on everything from hockey to video games, and watching them embrace one another will be my most lasting image.”
– Josh Bernstein, former Islanders vice president of communications
To kick off the tournament, Harbin held an opening banquet. Instead of separating the teams at individual tables, there was a place setting for each player, ensuring everyone had a chance to get to know each other. Players from all four teams shared laughs and learned how to say hello in each other’s language.
When Coach Nimmo received the sign-in sheet to write in his roster, he noticed a line at the top reserved for the ‘team name.’ It wasn’t ‘Nassau County Mustangs’ that Nimmo wrote on that top line, but ‘Team USA’ that he scribbled proudly.
“It was amazing to see our kids think that just because the Chinese teams were just starting out that they had a good chance to beat them. The reality is that these kids have been training and working really hard to create a pool of athletes they can select for their national program.”
– Dan Bedard
After watching the opening game of the tournament, it was time for the Mustangs to play their first game. The team huddled up and came to an agreement: they were going to ‘take it easy on them,’ keep the game close, and only win by a goal.
Much to their surprise, the team from Qiqihar was slightly more skilled than anticipated and the Mustangs lost, 13-0.
They quickly realized that if they were going to represent the United States, they better start taking the other teams a little more seriously. With a better sense of their competition and a new mindset, the Mustangs beat the team from Jiamusi in their next game.
“You can’t get over knowing you’re representing the United States in an international tournament. It’s just amazing. You can’t even describe it.”
– Conor Nimmo, team captain, Nassau County Mustangs
On Jan. 1, while the NHL Winter Classic was taking place at historic Wrigley Field, the Mustangs were taking part in a winter classic of their own half way around the world. In subzero temperatures, they bundled up to play on an outdoor rink with the other teams.
Though given permission to use the ice, parents were a little nervous when a police car pulled up next to the rink. An officer got out, opened the trunk and pulled out a bag – the content of which was surprising and put everyone at ease. It was full of hockey equipment, and he laced up his skates and hopped on the ice, hoping to get in on a little of the action.
“I’ve been involved in hockey for almost 30 years and while the Great Wall was beautiful, I would have never gone there if it wasn’t for hockey. It’s hockey that really takes me to all these places.”
– Mark LaMarr, Director, Nassau County Hockey
After 11 extraordinary days, it was time for the Mustangs and their families to make the long trek home. Back to the land of pizza and hot dogs, the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building, to school and hockey practice and everything else that comes with the familiarity of home.
From the Great Wall of China to the Forbidden City to the site of the 2008 Summer Olympics, everyone experienced the trip in their own unique way.
But parents and members of Nassau County Hockey and the New York Islanders organizations came back with one distinguishing memory: hearing laughter resonate from the locker rooms and across ice rinks as their kids made friends with kids they shared almost nothing with except a love of hockey.
It was the trip of a lifetime and proved that hockey can take you anywhere you want to go.