VAIL, Colorado - The Vail International Hockey team travels two directions, far east and farther east.
They left Wednesday morning for their latest adventure, this one in China. Once in China they'll travel about the same distance as Florida to Alaska and play six games along the way. The hockey is nice, but the travel is better.
Merv Lapin started the whole thing in 1985. More than 600 people have come along for the 10 trips to either to China or Eastern Europe. This one is his last, he said, but the trips will continue. Eric Eves took over the program.
"The purpose is to show the kids there's another world out there," Lapin said.
The kids learn a little history, some culture, and how China's culture goes back 5,000 years.
"It opens their eyes to how good we have it here," Lapin said.
Merv started it because he loves to travel, he said.
The players and chaperones will visit Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Terracotta soldiers, take a Li River cruise and visit some small farming towns.
Then there's the hockey. Each team plays six games along the way, facing off in cities like Beijing, Harbin and Qiqihar.
In each one of those cities the Vail Valley kids spend time with the Chinese hockey players they're playing against, going to their homes and getting a first-hand look at life in China.
Jackson Sandell will head home with Chinese player Ni Tianyu. So far, plans include lunch and some sight-seeing by bicycle around Beijing.
"It will be such an eye-opening experience for these kids," said Harry Sandell, Jackson's dad.
Eric Eves took the trip when he was a high school player. He's going back to China with this group as a coach and chaperone.
"For me the exchange is the best part of the trip. I very much enjoy seeing the youth break down cultural barriers and step out of their comfort level. For me at 14 years old it was a life-changing experience," Eves said.
Vail International Hockey is one of the only groups that has the Chinese government's permission for home visits. In the 1980s, Lapin helped the Chinese government set up their youth hockey programs. Chinese officials were grateful and the local kids are the benefactors.
Kids have to write a paper about one part of their trip.
"When they go to the site they'll be better educated about it," Lapin said.
It takes three years to raise the $4,200 each kid needs, and they have to raise it themselves. The parents are not allowed to pay for it.
They sold bedding plants in the spring, poinsettias at Christmas, sold themselves as day laborers for the Hire a Hockey Player program, skated hundreds of laps in skate-a-thons, they worked the community rummage sale.
They'll return Jan. 4.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.