Today was the day we got to play hockey. When so many things are unknown and there are so many distractions, one thing that we can all count on is the game of hockey. Nobody knows what a great day every day is for hockey more than Stefan Gonzalez and he does not shy away from displaying his enthusiasm for iced sports. The neat thing about our opportunity hear in Chengde is that at the same time that we are to play hockey, there is also a bandy tournament going on and believe it or not, some of our players will get a chance to play bandy. If you do not know what bandy is, it is a bit like a hybrid between field hockey, soccer and hockey. It is played on more of a soccer field sized sheet of ice and is played with a ball opposed to a puck. I am not a bandy expert but I may become one over the course of our stay in Chengde. Stay tuned. Anyways, the reason some of our players may get a chance to play bandy is that we are the largest team here in regards to numbers. There is a bug tournament going on here in Chengde with a senior hockey division, a hockey division that our team is playing in, and a bandy division. Since we have the greatest number of players. Some of our players each day are going to be lent out to other teams whether they be in the senior division or the bandy division. On day one of the tournament, Kenny Batke, Aaron Grunehage, Dawson Sawatzky, Deryk Kirchner and captain Kaleb Denham all bravely volunteered to be loaned out to other teams for the day.
Our first game was to be played against a Chinese under-20 team. This was all we knew as we geared up in our hotel rooms for our first taste of Chinese hockey. And yes, you heard me right, we geared up in our hotel rooms. Since the rink we are playing on is built right on top of frozen water, there are no facilities in the area for dressing rooms. The boys had a lot of fun with this and appreciated the puzzled looks in the elevator as we ventured down in to the lobby in full gear. It’s not every day we get to see the streets of Chengde but it’s also not every day that the people of Chengde get to see a 6 foot 3 towering Lucas Hildebrand dressed in full hockey equipment walking around in a hotel lobby, politely speaking the only 2 Chinese words in his vocabulary repeatedly. Like Lucas, many others have attempted to make use of Chinese words for ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ and in response we have received many looks of either annoyance, confusion, entertainment and from time to time, even gratitude.
Chinese language aside, we all did something we have done hundreds of times and that is to climb onto a bus to go play a hockey game. Despite being in unfamiliar territory, there was still somewhat of a comfort level knowing that we were off to play a hockey game. There were a few sets of headphones on the bus to get in the zone like always and an obvious sense of excitement. Once we pulled up to where we were going to play, we immediately realized that we had never experienced anything like this at all. There was no ice in sight and we learned that it was a 1000 meter walk to where to ice was. Again with smiles and awe of being in China, we began the trek to the frozen water that we are all too familiar with. On the way there was much to look at and it barely felt like a chore to walk so far on hockey equipment, some even with their skates on. We could not help but to be amazed by what we were doing. Things only got more amazing when we reached the ice surface. Hockey rinks, built right on top of a frozen lake, ice to skate on everywhere in between and hockey players from many different parts of the world. After taking a few moments to soak it all in, we were ushered toward the rink we would play on where the skates were laced up, sticks were grabbed and the game proceeded.
The game consisted of 3, 25 minute running periods. Unorthodox may be a good word to describe the game that we were about to play. There was no glass on the boards and the boards themselves were not stable enough for any kind of contact so we knew we were in for a different kind of game then we were used to. Nevertheless, with curious Chinese spectators everywhere and go-pros on a couple helmets, the puck dropped and we began to play the game that we’ve been playing our whole lives. It did not take long for the first goal to be scored and it came courtesy of 4th year forward Riley Schmitt, the first goal ever scored by the Spartans in China. Goals continued to come and we ended up winning 11-2. Of course there were many things to remember throughout the game, but it is impossible to name them all. To name a few, the Zamboni came out in between periods in the form of bamboo brooms, Silas Matthys went on a personal photo shoot all over the area with photographer Jacob Kropf, and Kade Vilio got lots of work on his penmanship by all the autographs he signed. I can only speak for myself, but I would say that the game experience we just had in Chengde, China was the coolest thing I have ever gotten to do. It wasn’t anything I could ever have dreamt of doing because it was so surreal. It may not even be the game itself that I remember, but what I will remember is the setting I was playing in and the people I was playing with. This is a once in a lifetime type of thing, that is until we get to do it all again tomorrow, how lucky are we?
Things settled down a little bit when we got back to the hotel. We were able to get unchanged and showered up and gather for some food before being given a game plan from the remainder of the day. Initially, we were being given the remainder of the day to do as we pleased, so long as we stuck with a minimum of a 3 person group. However, soon after being told this, we were told that Dr. Laird had graciously paid for us all to go get massages. So in groups of 5 at a time, we took a 5 minute walk down the street to a fancy massage parlor and had our feet, neck and backs renewed. I’m sure for many of us, this was our only massage experience we have had thus far in our lives. For some, it will be the only massage experience of our lives and for others like Jacob Mills, it will be the only massage experience until he can figure out how to book another one before we leave Chengde. Regardless of what kinds of experiences we will have in our futures, it is pretty neat to share all of this with the group we call Spartans hockey. I genuinely believe there is not another group in the world like us. We have traveled across the world and seen hockey players of all different kinds, but no one else operates like Spartans do. In the spirit of the Goodwill Tour, our hope is that others will take notice of this and become attracted to our program and begin to ask questions of what we are all about. We have a lot of days left in China to make an impact and it begins tomorrow morning with another group of volunteers playing for teams that need players more than we do. Stay tuned.