Okanagan Hockey Academy United Kingdom student-athletes got a taste of what hockey means to Canadians during an almost 20 day trip, including visiting the academy in Penticton.
“We instantly loved it as soon as we got here,” said Ross Thompson, a player on the OHA UK under-18 team. “Obviously in the UK the hockey isn’t as big. It was a chance to see the different rinks and play the sport we love. Getting a chance to be in the school, it has been really good.”
The student-athletes immersed themselves in Canadian life during their trip from Oct. 18 to Nov. 5. that included playing games, a highlight for the team.
“We have a good thing going over in the UK, but we don’t get a chance to play the teams that come out a bit harder and a bit faster,” said Thompson.
OHA UK assistant coach, Jamie Elson, said it has been an “awesome experience.” They wanted to remove the team from its comfortable environment in Swindon, England, located 1.5 hours west of London.
“The program in the UK, we are one of the top teams,” said Elson, adding they wanted to put the players in a position to be challenged. “Come in here, a much higher level of competition. Much faster, more physical style of play.”
Facing academies, their focus was on the process and development. Thompson said they improved their play and they were tested.
“The one thing we have learned is definitely the compete level,” he said. “The first came to be a bit of a shock for us all. We came out, and (the Pursuit of Excellence-Kelowna) came out 10 times harder. The way they hunt the puck. We need to be able to be hard on the puck. Shoot harder, pass harder. Everything has to be at a higher intensity.”
“In England there is really no compete level. The hockey is more club,” said Ethan Mayoh, who enjoyed playing the OHA teams, who pushed them. “It is more of a hobby for most players. We are the only academy in England. We really want to compete and thrive in the sport.”
Elson and head coach Ryan Aldridge wanted the players in situations to build character.
“We want to come back and feel that everyone has taken a step forward,” said Elson. “Have an experience that for some of them might be once-in-a-lifetime.”
The players also did WHL combine tests to see how they compare with North American athletes. Elson said the players enjoyed doing it. He was interested in seeing some of the scores adding that players in their program are pretty athletic.
“Their scores are really pushing the top guys here,” he said. “For them it is exciting to see that.”
They also learned from watching junior hockey, attending Penticton Vees and Kelowna Rockets games, which was an eye-opener because of the speed and strategies used.
Andy Oakes, president of the Okanagan Hockey Group, said the trip has been a success because the players truly got to have a Canadian cultural experience.
From a business perspective, it is the first time there has been interaction between the locations. This will be followed up with a pilot project as Okanagan Hockey Ontario will be here Nov. 4 to 11. Oakes said it gives the organizations a chance to come and see where it all started. They get to see they are part of something bigger.
“It makes the two organizations that much closer. It creates synergies,” said Oakes.
With the UK specifically, the OHG has been looking to do some things that nobody else can do in the UK.
“It’s a bit of a showcase experience for the UK side,” added Oakes. “From a recruitment standpoint, maybe wanting to have that Canadian experience. Hopefully it will benefit the UK in attracting some of the players.”
Away from the rink, they saw the area.
Thompson said he had never seen so many mountains as England is pretty flat.
“I can’t believe how many times we have been up mountains,” he said. “The climate changes so quickly. Go from ground and then suddenly snow. It’s absolutely unreal and the boys loved it the other day (a trip to Apex).
Trying different food was fun as Thompson was encouraged to try poutine.
“I didn’t really know what it was at the time,” he said. “It was unreal. The burgers over here as well they are really nice. When you are out here you have to experience it. We have tried a bit of everything.”
Their billets also made a lasting impression. Thompson became sick during the stay and was in the hospital where his family offered support in any way they could.
“I couldn’t thank them enough,” he said.
“The billet families have been exceptional. They have supported, have taught about the culture,” said Mayoh. “I’ve really enjoyed Canada. I would come back again.”
Some experienced Halloween, which is not celebrated as big back home. Oli Endicott was encouraged by his billet parents to go and went with teammate Luca Bancila and their billets.
“We went out for an hour, it was absolutely amazing,” he said. “It was so fun.”
Complementary to learning about Canadian culture, the students received a history lesson by Lisa Stephens, an Aboriginal teacher, who did an hour-long blanket exercise on pre-contact of Europeans coming to Canada to present day. Dave Nackoney, a Penticton Secondary School instructor acting as a liaison with Okanagan Hockey Group, said once the UK students got involved and they got into classes, they got pretty excited.
“It was good for our students and good for them,” he said. “I just think it has been really rewarding for a lot of people.”
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