Vail Hockey team to play in Russia, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia during Christmas vacation |

Vail Hockey team to play in Russia, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia during Christmas vacation

Don’t call the Vail Junior Hockey Association a bunch of spoiled rich kids.

Yes, the team will be spending 17 days during Christmas vacation in Eastern Europe, playing hockey against Russians and Czechs, taking in ballets in St. Petersburg and daytripping around Prague.

Yes, both players and parental chaperones will be getting unforgettable in-the-flesh history lessons, with guided tours of the Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration camps in Cracow, Poland, or the Karlstejn Castle in the Czech Republic.

But, no, the parents didn’t just pop off this little excursion. The kids actually paid for it themselves – at least most of it, that is.

“First, the parents pledge a $1,000, and we work that off,” said John Armstead, a sophomore at Vail Christian High School. “I did everything from moving lawns to digging out 9-foot tree stumps. Our hockey coach would call us and ask us if we wanted to do a job somewhere, like selling popcorn or other odd jobs.”

Through the “Hire a Hockey Player” program, most of the 50 or so players going on the trip managed to work off the money by doing an assortment of tasks, all so that they could reap the rewards of their hard work.

Merv Lapin, former head of the VJHA, who has organized trips abroad for the team every three years since 1985, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“This will be my 27th trip to Russia,” said Lapin, whose involvement in hockey in Vail dates back to 1972. “Every three years, I take all the high school kids that are interested in going to Russia, the Czech Republic and Poland. Three years later, I’ll take the kids to China. I think it’s important that the kids earn as much money as they can.”

Lapin first generated the idea to do the trips back in the mid-80s as an incentive to keep the kids on the hockey team. A world-class traveler himself, who actually worked in China for three years and was a witness to the Tianamenn Square massacre, Lapin decided that the trips would be both educational and instrumental in honing his players’ skills.

Many of the players whom the Vail teams will be facing in their games in St. Petersburg and Prague will be against boys who are destined for their country’s national teams, considering the high cost of the sport in their respective countries.

“What we do in St. Petersburg and Prague is let the kids spend the day with kids their own age that they will be playing with,” said Lapin. “Depending on the level of the team and the score, a lot of times we’ll mix the teams up. That”s another way that the kids get to interact with one another. They have to learn how to communicate, even though they don’t speak the same language.”

Lapin’s teams were the first to play in China, and actually had a Nickelodeon television crew with them when they went in the 80s. The program is not just one-sided either, as players from China, Russia and Bulgaria have come to stay with VJHA players over the years too.

Each player is required to write a paper on one part of the trip, such as an overview of the Bolshevik Revolution, or the horror of the Holocaust.

“What my motives are is that I am trying to expose kids,” said Lapin. “I want to show them that there is no difference between them and the Russians, or the Chinese. I also want to show them that it’s possible to travel. They don’t understand. All you’ve got to do is want to do it, because the kids over there aren’t able to have the freedom that we have. They don’t realize how lucky they are to be Americans.”

There will be 57 players and coaches going on this years’ trip, making up a Bantam team and a Midget team. Along with the players from Vail, there will also be players from Eagle, Aspen, Steamboat Springs and Breckenridge.

The group leaves Sunday for St. Petersburg and returns to the United States on New Year’s Day after spending New Year’s Eve in Prague – a perfect ending to a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

“I’m just excited to see the culture,” said Armstead. “It will be cool to hang out with Russian kids in one of the coolest cities in the world. I’m also excited for New Year’s in Prague. That should be amazing.”

Nate Peterson is a sports writer for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 608 or via

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