Puck diplomacy: Vail International Hockey trip helps players grow on and off the ice
19-day trip includes games against teams from Iceland, Sweden, Czech Republic and Finland
Vail International Hockey’s recent 19-day trip to Eastern Europe and Scandinavia exposed 34 area players to a lot more than Olympic-sized rinks and international competition.
“Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, the food, the culture, it’s just been memories,” said Jorge Sinaloa, one of the players to make the trip.
The eight-city tour, which finished on Jan. 5 with a match in Iceland, included two games in each country visited for the U17 and U14 teams assembled for the trip. Most importantly, however, it offered the chance for student-athletes to expand their global perspectives through hands-on visits to unique historic sites, conversations with witnesses to some of the 20th century’s pivotal moments and… well… hockey, of course.
“It’s the vehicle that gets them interested and is our common bond with the countries we visit,” said Vail International Hockey Executive Director Eric Eves, who calls the nonprofit’s vision “puck diplomacy.”
“Any of these countries — they have their perceived notions about America and we have either no knowledge or basic knowledge or misconceived notions about them,” he said. “And we’re just breaking down those cultural barriers and trying to bring the world closer. And hockey is just a beautiful part of it.”
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“We played some of the best youth teams in Finland, Latvia, Czech Republic and Sweden,” Eves said, quickly dismissing the scoreboard’s relative weight. That is, except for the home fans. In reality, while the visiting roster betrayed the geographically-focused representation of a familiar Colorado region — with athletes hailing from Steamboat Springs, Fraser, Frisco, Glenwood Springs, Edwards, Avon, Vail, Wolcott, Aspen, Basalt and Carbondale — hundreds arrived to watch a game the scoreboard indicated was against the “USA.”
“We’re not a select team,” Eves explained. But the opponents often are, and when the games inevitably get mismatched, Eves adopts an old strategy originally used by Vail International Hockey founder Merv Lapin to keep the learning — and international exposure — going: the defensemen switch teams.
“All of a sudden, these kids are putting on a Latvian jersey and those guys are putting on a Colorado hockey jersey,” Eves described.
“That’s where the real beauty of the game and the language of hockey — it’s not even a language it’s just this knowledge that they have of playing with each other, and they get extra creative.”
“It was really cool because I got to meet all the kids and see what their type of hockey was like,” said Vail’s George Grayson.
“Playing with the other nations’ teams, we really got to see a different style of play we’re not used to,” observed coach Mark Greer. “A lot of these European teams play on Olympic-sized ice. We were able to see how they utilize the space of the ice better and how they move the puck and play a more possession-style game.”
Greer’s favorite memory was when, after defenses had switched things up, the Swedish team drew something up for their new player — Sinaloa. When the Battle Mountain junior scored, both benches went wild. The image captured the power of hockey’s universal language in forging friendships and crossing cultures. Of course, with competitive teenagers, some bonds weren’t made immediately.
“An interesting exchange (I had) with a player was, during the game we didn’t really like each other, and then afterwards, we talked and I found out he was actually really nice and we became friends,” said Tarn Ihnken. Gavin Vold traded pins with a coach and Charlie Kaplinski swapped phone numbers over a postgame pizza.
U14 player Hank Haley said the European-style hockey — which emphasizes less individualism and more passing — rubbed off on him. “It makes me more aggressive,” he said.
“Normally back in Vail, when kids are coming down, they cut to the outside and try to take it behind the net, but now (these players) try to take it in front of the net. So, you have to be more aggressive, you have to pinch them harder, you have to use your body more. If you try to just use your stick, they just go straight by it.”
“I’ve gotten a lot faster and just better overall,” Grayson added.
The team’s goaltender, Sebastian Sailer, echoed the sentiment. “When I go back home, I’m probably going to be really used to fast hockey,” he said. “Here, it is very fast.”
Weaving history into hockey
Merv Lapin founded Vail International Hockey in 1985 after traveling to Asia himself.
“He saw the writing on the wall with the growth of China and the breakup of the Soviet Union and the importance of everything that happened in World War II and the Cold War and how that’s going to shape our future,” Eves said.
“Thirty-five years later, we’re now walking through history on these trips.”
One could sense the tension due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The team’s visit to Poland was canceled because the rink typically used was housing refugees. Eves said there were “a lot of political undertones and nuances felt” as the group — which also included roughly 20 parents as well as a doctor and team coaches — made their way through Latvia and the Czech Republic.
“No one knows what is going to happen next,” he said, adding that the group came within 50 miles of the Russian border during its stay in Finland. The literal proximity to history — even potentially future significant moments — is intentional.
“History is going to happen — there’s going to be something that happens in Prague or Reykjavík, a meeting or UN assembly — and they’re going to be able to say ‘I was there,’ and that sets them apart from the traditional American story,” Eves said. Typically, the focus of these trips has been World War II specifically.
When asked why, Eves said, “History repeats itself, it just shows itself in a different way,” adding that athletes choose a topic ranging from Perestroika to the Velvet Revolution to research beforehand.
“We didn’t go to Russia, but we went really close where they could really see and appreciate freedom and democracy. It will take a little bit for a lot of the players to connect the dots and soak in.”
For several players, the big off-ice highlights were those visits to museums, old cathedrals and other historic sites.
“The Holocaust museum was very powerful because of the kids’ drawings,” Grayson said.
Vail’s Mason Darnell was fascinated by “all the culture and seeing how all of the different countries worked,” and learning about the political and social effects of the Soviet collapse on surrounding nations.
Having witnessed the trip’s impact through the years — Eves has seen kids grow up to become lawyers, and historians and learn another language or even live overseas — the director is motivated to collaborate with regional coaches and clubs to make the event biannual and possibly incorporate a reciprocal exchange.
“We’ve been talking to all these clubs here about how we can bring back what we used to have, which was the Vail International Hockey tournament, and then create some sister clubs,” he said. “That’s been received super well.”
Eves is sure of at least two things: the athletic and intellectual imprints left on the players.
“We’re trying to give a global perspective and use hockey as the connector,” he said.
“Seeing our players with these kids and also playing against them — that they’ve started to change their styles. The best hockey coaches in the world will tell you that the best players in the world are the most creative. And you can’t teach creativity — it has to become instinctual. It has to be felt.”
“The coolest thing I learned off the ice was just learning about the history and the culture of the places we were going and how it was different from America in many ways,” Henry Mellenthin said.
“All the cultural differences that they have (compared to) Aspen — and there’s a lot of similarities, too — it’s cool to see all of that,” Ihnken noted.
“Some of (the places we visited) are very similar to the U.S. but they always have a little bit of a cultural twist,” Sailer added.
Darnell struggled to pinpoint how he’d grown specifically as a player, but his answer perfectly summed up the trip’s objectives.
“I kind of just keep my eyes more open on and off the ice,” he said.
The other assurance Eves has: those memories Sinaloa attributed to the trip will be talked about for a long time.
“I talk to guys in their 30s and 40s and they say it’s a topic of conversation at their weddings,” Eves said over the phone late at night on one of the final stops. As he spoke, all of the boys, on their own initiative, had started a game of hockey (what else?) on a rink they’d discovered near the hotel. As the friends played under the stars, Eves contently sighed.
“It’s a pretty impactful deal.”