Strangers In a Strange Land – Ontario Boys In the Czech Republic

Just about two weeks ago now, I was packing my bags to head out on an eleven day excursion to follow a group of hockey players – the majority of whom I’d never met – on an international trip to the Czech Republic where they’d be playing in the 2017 World Ball Hockey Federation (WBHF) World Championship. I had no idea what to expect; not only was this my first time outside of North America, this was my first time being fully immersed in a week long ball hockey tournament. I couldn’t have guessed what level of play the other countries would be bringing to the table, let alone how our team, Team Great Britain, would do. The only thing I did know was that this was completely outside of my comfort zone, but I pounced on the opportunity, as it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m glad I seized this chance for a number of reasons. One, I was able to live in a completely different culture for almost two weeks. This was an eye opening experience that not only made me appreciate the Czech culture, but gave me a much deeper appreciation for Canadian comforts that we might take for granted. Two, I was able to witness hockey at an energy level that I’d never seen before. The level of play that I got to see these last two weeks was, in my opinion, even more lively than this year’s NHL playoffs. Three, I was able to become acquainted with a group of some of the friendliest, and most dedicated hockey players I’ve ever met. Truly, the members of Team Great Britain are all stand-up individuals, and they welcomed me into their group almost immediately. I had a great time rooting for these guys in the stands, joking, and sharing meals with them, and I’m proud to now call them friends.

Day 1

The trip started with – as you’d expect – a rendezvous in the airport. Meeting at 3:30pm for a 6:30pm flight meant that there was a little waiting around time where the team and I were able to get to talking. I was introduced as “the social media coordinator,” and even though I wouldn’t be playing in the rink with the guys, they were immediately receptive to me, and made me feel like part of the team. A quick ten hour flight and a five hour layover in Paris (where we were able to enjoy a delicious, thirty dollar, artisan sandwich), and we arrived in Prague. While we weren’t actually staying in Prague for the duration of the trip, driving through the city filled me with a sense of adventure. I’d never seen architecture like the kind we were driving past. I was sleep-deprived and covered in the smell of the plane, but I wanted to get out and explore this beautiful city.

Arriving in the Czech Republic

As we drove into Litomerice, the city that we’d be calling home for the next ten days, the mood had slightly shifted. On it’s face, the town didn’t seem anywhere near as welcoming as Prague. The sense of adventure had transformed into one of danger, and the streets seemed to get smaller and smaller. Seriously, our bus driver nearly got himself stuck turning into our hotel. Of course, as we came to know the town, this feeling would change, and we’d realize that Litomerice is actually quite a lovely town with an exciting night life, and plenty of fantastic restaurants. But not before we ventured up to our luxurious hotel rooms equipped with all the amenities one could ask for. That is, four walls and a bed. This is where one would have to make a choice, either you roll with the punches, and accept that you’re in a foreign country where the luxuries you’re used to in a Canadian hotel room aren’t the norm, or you dwell on the fact that there’s no air conditioning or mini-fridge for the entirety of the trip. Myself, along with the rest of the team opted to exercise the former, and I’m glad we did. It meant that we didn’t spend much of our time in the hotel anyways, and we were able to go out and pursue that sense of adventure.

Upon arriving at our hotel, we were all exhausted. Personally, I don’t think I got a wink of sleep since leaving the Toronto airport. However, this didn’t stop the team from getting out to explore the city of Litomerice. Team Great Britain can party almost as well as they can play hockey, and that’s saying a lot. Memories were made that first night in the Czech Republic, but even more were lost. The night life in Litomerice is terrifically exciting, and the locals were welcoming and courteous. Their hospitality, and willingness to show us around made for a truly excellent first night abroad.

Visiting Prague

The transition from night to day is little more than a blur, but before I knew it, we were heading off to Prague. Whether I was of sound mind and body or not, we were boarding a bus to spend our free day sight seeing and indulging in local delicacies and libations. Like I’d mentioned before, the architecture in Prague is absolutely stunning. I’ve included some pictures of the more eye-catching sights, but it truly is something to behold. I found myself taken aback, staring at the noticeably ancient buildings that were occupying the same space as me – a stark contrast to the relatively modern architecture that we’re used to in southern Ontario. After some more walking and a few more pilsners (the beer in the Czech Republic is cheaper than water, don’t you know) we made our way back to the train station with the intention of calling it a night. Our walk to the station turned to a jog and then into a dead sprint though, as being in a foreign country, it’s easy to mix up exactly where you’re supposed to be at what time, and we had become very late for our train. Fortunately we made it back on time. The team even had enough energy to go out for the second night in a row. Being the stick in the mud I am, I decided to call it for the evening and retire to my hotel room to catalogue the events of the trip. There were going to be a busy few days ahead of us.

Preparing for the Tournament

The next morning started with an 11:00am practice. This is where I first got to see what the team was made of. I’ve never seen a group of guys more dedicated to their game. The members of Team Great Britain eat, live, and breathe ball hockey. This was made evident by the hustle they brought to the practice, and the pride with which they wore their team’s logo. I saw the Great Britain lion on bags and on phone cases; I saw the logo was used as players’ phone and laptop background. Still, despite the dedication, a few players had a bit too much fun the night before, and were late to the team’s practice. Head Coach, Chad Asselstine, made sure they were made into an example, and had them run a lap of an angel for every minute they were late. Just watching Team Captain, Iain Downes, and players McKenzee MacQueen and Andrew Jegg run the length of the rink, hoisting a piece of goalie equipment above their head was enough to tire you out. The practice was gruelling, but the games would be the real test. The next day would mark the beginning of the tournament, and the start of Great Britain’s amazing winning streak.

The Games Start

I won’t spend too much time going into the games in exhaustive detail, as recaps of each game can be found right here. I will say, though, that it was absolutely commendable the way Great Britain went from the underdogs of the tournament to one of the top contenders. The team played amazingly over the first four games, winning the first two games, against Europe and Hungary, with shutouts, and heading into the semifinals undefeated. The first true challenge, against Team USA, was something of a nail-biter. It almost seemed like Team Great Britain would take their first loss, but they managed to recover from a 2-0 disadvantage, and then win the game with a beautiful penalty shot in the final moments; it was an incredible sight. There’s no denying that the team was riding high off of these wins, and the mood throughout the hotel was infectious. It was a joy to be around such energy and positivity.

Returning to Prague

Following the round robin, the team earned a much needed day off, which was spent, again, in Prague. After testing out the Czech Republic’s take on McDonald’s – which is mostly the same as North American McDonald’s – we were off to see any sights we’d missed out on last time. In order to see the most of Prague as quickly as we could, we rented a set of motorized scooters to take a bike tour throughout the town. Having never been on anything motorized with less than four wheels, I can tell you that this took some getting used to. After I was acclimated, however, I can confidently say that this was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Being able to fly from landmark to landmark as quickly as we could on these scooters was a blast. After grabbing another quick bite at one of Prague’s fine dining establishments, and arriving at the wrong train station yet again, the team took a fifty minute Über ride back to the hotel to rest up before the semifinals.

Semifinals

I won’t lie, the next few days were not as enthusiastic as the first. Unfortunately, Team Great Britain was unable to beat the Czech Republic team for entrance to the gold medal game. However, I’ve never seen a team play as hard, or as efficiently has Great Britain in the final period of this match. They managed to come back from a 4-1 disadvantage, and I believe, should have tied it up with a goal that was scored at the very last moment of the game. Unfortunately, the goal didn’t count due to a call that it was scored after the period had ended, and Team Great Britain would only move onto the bronze medal game.

It was clear, in the bronze medal game, that Team Great Britain was disappointed. They had every right to be, but it seems as though the loss against the Czech Republic was hitting harder than any of them were letting on. It was like they were playing a different game than I had seen throughout the rest of the week. Still, they played an excellent game of hockey, and goalie, Mark Hawrylak, was on point – stopping nearly everything that Team USA could throw at him. It wasn’t enough to win them the bronze though, and they unfortunately lost their last game in the bronze medal final.

Despite not going home with a medal, Team Great Britain can leave with a sense of accomplishment. They came fourth overall in the tournament, which is a huge feat considering they came into the WBHF as a group of unknown entities. They managed to come out remarkably strong, and show the other teams what they were about right away. Whatever you think of the call made at the end of the Czech Republic game, Team Great Britain played some incredible games of hockey, and I was proud to have been a part of the experience. It’s understandable that the team would be disappointed that they didn’t bring home the gold, but in my eyes, they have nothing to be upset about.

Returning Home

On our trip back to the airport, and in the eight hours we had to wait before boarding the flight, I had some time to ruminate on the last ten days I had spent on the Czech Republic. There were moments of discomfort – like the sweltering heat of the hotel room, there were moments of confusion – like breaking off from the group to find a coffee and being unsure that I would find my way back, and there were moments of pain – let’s talk as little about the morning after the first night in Litomerice as possible. All things considered though, I wouldn’t change a thing about the trip. I was able to witness some absolutely incredible hockey, and make some unforgettable memories with a group of people who I’m now lucky to call friends. While it’s nice to be back home in the great white north, I think that we all left a little piece of ourselves in the Czech Republic during this trip.

For more on Team Great Britain’s travels to the Czech Republic, including wrap ups of each game, and profiles on each of the players, check out stickskillz.com/news. For all the latest news in the world of ball hockey, make sure to keep it tuned to stickskillz.com, and for up to the minute developments, make sure to follow us on Twitter @stickzkills, and like us on Facebook.

Article credit: Stickskillz.com