Vail International Hockey celebrates 30 years during trip to Eastern Europe |

Vail International Hockey celebrates 30 years during trip to Eastern Europe

Melanie Wong
Vail International Hockey plays with a hosting Swedish team, Ekero.
Robbie Giardino | Special to the Daily |

VAIL — While many Eagle County residents celebrated the holidays with family and skiing, a group of 37 young hockey players spent their Christmas vacation exploring Eastern Europe.

Vail International Hockey takes players ages 12 to 17 on a trip to either Eastern Europe or China every three years, and this year, the group celebrates the 30th anniversary of the nonprofit organization with a trip that started in Reykjavik, Iceland; Austria; the Czech Republic; Krakow, Poland and Stockholm. The group returned to Colorado on Jan. 3.

While the crux of the trip was centered around hockey, the real goal of the trips is for the players to have a cultural immersion. They typically have a meal with the opposing teams they play, and visit cultural sights and historical landmarks.

“We play with local clubs. So far we’ve played a game at each location,” said organizer and director Eric Eves from Krakow. “The trips were set up as kind of a cultural exchange using hockey to get the kids over here.”

The structure of the trips encourages them to dwell on their experiences as well. Every player writes a paper before the trip, and along the way, the players write reports and blog posts that are posted on the group’s website about what they’ve seen and done.

Gaining a global perspective

Merv Lapin founded Vail International Hockey in 1985, after visiting Eastern Europe and China a number of times on his own travels and through hockey. His first experience in Eastern Europe was in a Volkswagen camper in 1967, and his travels there gave him a unique perspective on the “Cold War” years to follow. He first visited China in 1977 and has since made 50 trips to the country. He’s watched it undergo tremendous change, and became convinced that China will be the most important country in Americans’ futures. He started Vail’s international hockey trips as a way to help young people appreciate their differences and similarities to these areas of the world, and also so they can better appreciate how lucky they are to be born Americans in Eagle County, Colorado.

Eves was a player who traveled through the program before becoming the director. He said that the gift of travel can make a big impact on the young men’s lives

“They gain the ability to be able to say that something isn’t better or worse, just different,” said Eves. “They realize that we’re not all that different. We speak a different language and live in different backdrops, but what they get to see is that hockey is a global game, and the kids they’re playing against aren’t all that different from them.”

During the last week of December, the players visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp memorials in Poland. Player Garrett Bradley, 14, said the experience was troublesome, but also made an impact on him.

“When we showed up, I was getting uneasy thinking about what it was like to be sitting in a train car being transported to a place they had heard about and never seen,” said Bradley. “We saw the barbed wire fence and the gas chamber, and after walking around, I felt like we have a really bad outlook on the world and on ourselves. We become selfish, when they lost everything they had and in most cases their lives. It was a lot to take in.”

Eves said Bradley’s not the first to feel a big impact because of what they see on the trips.

“We’ve had people go on these trips and become businessmen working in this part of the world, or Holocaust scholars because of what they’ve seen,” he said.

On and off the ice

Of course, the culture and hockey aren’t too bad either. The players said they were impressed by the caliber of players they faced, and by how popular hockey is in Eastern Europe.

“When we were playing, all these teams were really disciplined. I think it’s a reflection of how they’re taught in school,” said Robby Gruber, 16, who also went to China with the group three years ago. “My favorite place was probably Prague. You could tell that hockey was huge there. There were a lot of fans, and in Poland, you can also tell there’s a big fan base for hockey.”

The players also saw various castles and historical buildings and got a taste of the food in each country. (The consensus seems to be that there was too much fish in Iceland, and that Czech food was an overall winner.)

Another life lesson organizers want players to learn is that hard work pays off. Each player raises money for his trip by selling poinsettias and doing odd jobs through the Hire a Hockey Player program.

“We had flower sales, and I’d start right away and go to my neighbors houses and sell flowers,” said Matthew Heiden, 14.

Find out more about Vail International Hockey and read more about the players’ experiences on the team blog at

Assistant Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and at Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.

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