Category: North America (page 1 of 10)

A Mexican Hockey Player Looks for a Place to Lace Up His Skates

Hector, a star forward for the Mexican national team, plays for Hockey Punks of the largely unknown Lithuanian pro league

By Tal Pinchevsky New York Times

After being deported from the United States as a collegian, Hector Majul has bounced around, most recently landing in Lithuania.

Perhaps the only thing more unusual than being a Mexican in Lithuania is being a Mexican hockey player in Lithuania.

So the general astonishment that has greeted Hector Majul since his arrival in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, in late November does not surprise him.

At 24, he is a forward for the Hockey Punks, one of four teams in the country’s largely unknown professional league. That move was another unforeseen step on an unconventional hockey path, which shifted when Majul was deported to Mexico during his college career in the United States.

“He is an impressive skater,” said Boris Dorozhenko, Majul’s childhood coach and mentor. “The only problem for him was always his Mexican citizenship.”

Like a growing number of international athletes who want to pursue careers in the United States, Majul found that his immigration status — and what some view as suddenly stringent enforcement of technicalities — had become a major impediment.

In a country that has long tried to attract athletes and artists with special talents, what once appeared to be a fairly clear path to at least semi-permanent residency has become a far more arduous road. The possibility of deportation can arise with just one unsatisfactory answer to an immigration official, whether spoken or written on a form.

In Majul’s case, an incorrect response a year and a half ago led to a dizzying journey back to Mexico, then on to Switzerland and now to Lithuania, with no promise of a return to the United States in the near future.

Dorozhenko, who played hockey in the former Soviet Union, discovered a 6-year-old Majul in Mexico City after becoming a coach with the Mexican national program in the early 1990s.

Dorozhenko eventually landed a hockey job in Arizona, and Majul, 14 at the time, followed him. Because he was attending high school, Majul entered the United States with a student visa, then became a fixture at hockey clinics in the area, alongside a local standout named Auston Matthews. Drafted first over all by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2016, Matthews is now among the N.H.L.’s brightest stars.

Majul was allowed to stay in the United States after high school, first on an amateur athlete visa, known as a P1, then on another student visa when he landed at Curry College in Massachusetts to play Division III hockey in 2015.

By then he was a star for Mexico in international competition. In his first appearance in the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Division II Group B world championship tournament in 2014, he tied for the team’s scoring lead and helped Mexico finish one win shy of promotion to a higher division. He was named the tournament’s top forward in 2015 and again in 2016.

“I know there have been professional players that have Mexican descent or Mexican parents,” Majul said, referring specifically to the N.H.L. (Matthews’s mother is from Mexico.) “But there has never been a Mexican-born pro hockey player. I want to be that guy.”

Majul, second from right, with his Hockey Punk teammates before the start of practice last month

But on Aug. 22, 2017, as Majul returned to the United States from a trip home to see family, Customs and Border Protection officials at William P. Hobby Airport in Houston discovered a makeup box belonging to his girlfriend, Katy Weizman. An American, Weizman had accompanied Majul on the trip and returned to the United States the previous week. The makeup kit contained a week’s supply of Concerta, her A.D.H.D. medication and a controlled substance.

Majul said that the Houston Police Department had declined to further investigate his possession of the drug, but that he was detained and questioned that night and into the morning. According to an appeal filed by his lawyer, Majul told a customs agent that he had left Mexico “to pursue a career in ice hockey.”

Based on this admission, Majul was found to have expressed an intention to violate the terms of his student visa. The visa was canceled, and he was deported after almost a decade of legally living and training in the United States.

When contacted about this case, the Customs and Border Protection agency said in a statement that officers had found that Majul “provided differing answers when asked about his trip to the U.S. and the reason he departed his country of origin.”

Majul’s lawyer submitted an appeal in September 2017, saying the officers had overreached in their decision. The appeal was denied.

Marian Daugherty, who took Majul into her home when he first moved to the United States, set up a “Bring Hector Back” Facebook page and reached out to the office of then-Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, to no avail.

Majul was left to train in Mexico City, unable to return to the United States until 2022 and without the services of an agent. But with only 1,552 registered hockey players in Mexico, compared with more than 562,000 in the United States, Majul knew he would need to go elsewhere to keep up his game.

Majul and Dorozhenko canvassed their hockey network. Their search drew the attention of Arno Del Curto, who for 22 years had led the Davos hockey club in Switzerland. Equipped with a 90-day tourist visa, Majul ventured to Switzerland. Within three weeks, he was told that the team wanted him to stay.

“It was a huge relief,” Majul said. “I’m going to be honest, I think I teared up a little bit when I talked to my parents.”

But immigration would again become a hurdle. To qualify for certification, Majul needed to have been considered a professional before arriving in Switzerland. Because he had most recently played competitive hockey in college and with the Mexican national team, he was deemed an amateur and denied a visa. The club in Davos appealed to the Swiss government, even offering to hire Majul as a skills coach in the hopes that might provide a legal workaround.

By November, with only five days remaining on his tourist visa and all his options exhausted, Majul went to train with a coach and former colleague of Dorozhenko’s in Serbia. Days later, he received an invitation to join Hockey Punks.

The Lithuanian club signed Majul to a contract, provided an apartment in Vilnius and helped him stabilize his immigration status. In perhaps the most unexpected turn of this hockey escapade, Majul is not the only Mexican on the team. His countryman Arunas Bermejo joined the club while studying in Lithuania.

“It’s a steppingstone, something to help me get to the next level,” Majul said. “Usually when people say they’re going to Europe, nobody thinks of Lithuania or Vilnius.”

He acknowledged that the transition to life in Vilnius was difficult, especially considering the abrupt nature of his arrival. But he has come to enjoy his new surroundings.

“It’s actually a really nice town,” Majul said. “Great food, people are very friendly. I think the only downside is how cold it is.”

The average high temperature in Vilnius in February is 30 degrees — not frigid, unless your reference points are Mexico and Arizona.

Majul has been approved for worker certification that for the next year or two will allow him to work within the Schengen Area, a region of 26 European nations, including Switzerland. That would make it easier for Majul to rejoin Davos for the 2019-20 season. (That hope was muddled when Del Curto announced his resignation in November.)

Daugherty helped Majul enroll in online classes through Arizona State University, and he is working to complete his degree.

In his first professional game, on Dec. 22, a 5-2 loss to Kaunas, Majul registered an assist. In his first eight games with the club, Majul collected a goal and six assists. He has not given up on his pro hockey dreams, including a potential return to the United States.

“I think in North America I have this label of, ‘Why is a Mexican playing hockey? He should be playing soccer,’” Majul said. “Don’t get me wrong. Here it’s also a shock when they hear there’s a Mexican hockey player. But after they see me playing, they see the level that I have, it kind of speaks for itself.”

“I think that was maybe the way it had to go,” he added. “Maybe for me to be able to go on to the next level, I had to come and make it through here first.”

New coach for U.S. women


Former NHL player and assistant coach Bob Corkum has been named head coach of the U.S. women’s national team for the 2018/2019 season.

He will be assisted by Joel Johnson, the associate head coach of the University of Minnesota women’s ice hockey team, and former NHL defenceman Brian Pothier.

Corkum succeeds another former NHL player who turned to coaching. During the past two seasons Robb Stauber led the U.S. to Olympic gold in 2018 and Women’s World Championship gold in 2017.

He already got a first glimpse of women’s hockey when he worked as an assistant coach in an U22 series between the U.S. and Canada in August that the American won with a three-game sweep. There Johnson worked as head coach while at the senior women’s team the roles will be switched.

Most recently the 50-year-old was working as an assistant coach for the New York Islanders between 2013 and 2017. He had joined the Islanders after spending five seasons as an associate coach of the men’s ice hockey team at his alma mater, the University of Maine.

The U.S. will soon play at the 2018 Four Nations Cup that will take place in Saskatoon, Canada, 6-10 November 2018. Corkum’s first season will end with the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Espoo, Finland, where Team USA will play in the “upper” Group A with Canada, Finland, Russia and Switzerland.

2018 CIBC Canada Russia Series Hosts

By Chl Canada/

The six-game series features regional league teams of Canadian National Junior Team candidates competing against the Russian National Junior Team and is an integral part of the identification process for Team Canada prior to the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship.  The 2018 event will open with two games in the WHL, followed by two OHL matchups, and ending with a pair of contests hosted by the QMJHL.

The season’s event begins in British Columbia with the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers and Vancouver Giants hosting Game’s 1 and 2 respectively on Monday November 5 and Tuesday November 6.  When the series shifts to Ontario it will be the OHL’s Sarnia Sting hosting Game 3 on Thursday November 8 followed by the Oshawa Generals hosting Game 4 on Monday November 12.  The series wraps up in Quebec with the QMJHL’s Sherbrooke Phoenix hosting Game 5 on Tuesday November 13 and the Drummondville Voltigeurs hosting Game 6 on Thursday November 15.

“Over the past 15 years we’ve seen the Canada and Russia rivalry ignite passion in CHL communities across our great country,” said CHL President David Branch. “This is truly a special event that showcases many of our league’s best players and future Canadian National Junior Team stars who will compete to defend gold on home soil at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship in Vancouver and Victoria.”

Since the event first began in 2003, CHL teams have played to an overall record of 61-22-1-6 and have won 12 of the 15 series including three straight.  The competitiveness of the rivalry has grown in recent years with five of the last eight series decided in the final game including last season where a shootout was required to decide the overall winner for the first time in event history.  A total of 36 players from last season’s event competed in the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship in Buffalo including 17 CHL players who won gold for Canada.

“The Canada-Russia rivalry is legendary and Canadians from coast-to-coast-to-coast will be cheering on our Canadian teams as they take in the action for this iconic showdown,” said Stephen Forbes, Executive Vice President, Banking Centres, CIBC.  “We congratulate the six host cities of the 2018 CIBC Canada Russia Series and we look forward to celebrating with our clients and employees in these communities, as we support the next generation of hockey talent through our partnership with the CHL.”

All six cities selected for games in 2018 have previously hosted this event including Kamloops, Sarnia, and Drummondville who will tie Sudbury’s CHL record with their fourth game.  Kamloops first hosted in 2006 with Team WHL skating to an 8-1 win, then in 2010 with Russia earning a 7-6 shootout win, and most recently in 2015 with Team WHL winning Game 2 of the series by a 4-2 score.  Sarnia hosted a 4-0 win for Team OHL in 2003, a 5-0 OHL win in 2006, and a 2-1 OHL victory in 2012.  Drummondville’s past three games include 2005 where Team QMJHL defeated Russia 7-4, 2009 where the QMJHL won 3-1, and most recently in 2010 won 4-3 by Russia.  Oshawa has hosted twice before including 2006 where Team OHL won by a 4-3 score, and in 2013 with Team Russia skating to a 5-2 win.  The other two clubs have hosted once with Vancouver’s game resulting in a 1-0 shootout win for Team WHL in 2012, and Sherbrooke’s event featuring a 4-3 win for Team QMJHL in 2013.

The 2018 CIBC Canada Russia series is supported by CHL associate sponsors Cooper Tires and Sherwin-Williams.  All games will be broadcast nationally on Sportsnet and TVA Sports.

2018 CIBC Canada Russia Series Schedule:
Game 1 – Monday November 5 at Kamloops, BC
Game 2 – Tuesday November 6 at Vancouver, BC
Game 3 – Thursday November 8 at Sarnia, ON
Game 4 – Monday November 12 at Oshawa, ON
Game 5 – Tuesday November 13 at Sherbrooke, QC
Game 6 – Thursday November 15 at Drummondville, QC

Team Canada prepares for World Junior Showcase in Kamloops

By Adam Donnelly – CFJC Today

They say death and taxes are the only two certainties in life, but when you live in Canada, there’s a third: hockey. This week in Kamloops the third is on display, with some of the best under-20 hockey players in the world in town. It’s the world junior showcase. The first step in Team Canada’s journey to the 2019 World Junior Tournament in Vancouver and Victoria.

It’s been almost eight months since Alex Formenton last donned the Maple Leaf. He was on the ice in the dying seconds as Team Canada captured the 2018 World Junior Hockey Championship, defeating Sweden by a 2-1 score.

“I just remember getting the opportunity to pick up the puck in the neutral zone,” Formenton said with a big smile. “The whole tournament was memorable, just being with a great group of guys.”

As one of the few returning players from that team, Formenton will be looked at to lead this young team heading into 2018 World Junior Showcase, set to kick off tonight at the Sandman Centre.

“I just try and model my game after the leaders who lead by example,” Formenton said. “I’m not a real vocal guy, but I want to lead by example on the ice and try and help out my teammates as much as I can.”

One of those young players getting his first look at the national U20 program is Vancouver Canucks 2018 2nd round draft pick Jett Woo, who says he’s coming to the event ready to learn.

“For myself, being such a young player and young prospect, the biggest thing for me is to keep my eyes open,” Woo said. “If I think that I’m good now, there’s so much more I can do.”

For Woo, the transition to the National program from his major junior club should be a little easier, as his head coach with Moose Jaw Warriors, Tim Hunter is at the helm of the Team Canada for the showcase and the 2019 World Junior championships.

“He was a pretty gritty player and a hard-working player,” Woo said. “Those are the things I’ve been able to pick up from him: hard work and compete level.”

Hunter played 16 seasons in the NHL, and was known for his grit and toughness on the ice; he knows he’s got to let his team find their own identity in this event.

“The team is going to have its own identity, Hunter told media. “It’s us making sure the players buy into writing our own story, writing our own identity and being who we are.”

With only three returning players at to the summer showcase event, he’s embraced the possibility he could have a young team heading into the 2019 World Junior Championships.

“Some of the best players here are 2000 [born players]. Always, an older team is a better team, but there’s a lot of good 2000’s in Canada, and we have quite a few here, especially on defence,” Hunter said. “At the end of the day, we’re going to take our best players. The players that can play the style we want, and whether they’re [born in] ’99 or 2000, it doesn’t matter.”

Canada’s National Junior Team staff unveiled for 2018-19 season

By Hockey Canada

A familiar name returns behind the bench to lead Canada’s National Junior Team through the 2018-19 season and the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship this December in Vancouver and Victoria, B.C.

Tim Hunter (Calgary/Moose Jaw, WHL) will be part of the coaching staff for the third-straight year, taking the reins as head coach after previously serving as assistant coach the past two years. Completing the coaching staff are assistants Marc-André Dumont (Montreal/Cape Breton, QMJHL), Jim Hulton (Kingston, Ont./Charlottetown, QMJHL) and Brent Kisio (Calgary/Lethbridge, WHL).

“To be in a position to have familiarity in our coaching staff with Tim Hunter gives us the opportunity to again compete for a gold medal,” said Scott Salmond, senior vice-president of national teams with Hockey Canada. “All three assistant coaches have also had prior experience working within our Program of Excellence at various levels. Their experience and knowledge will help our players succeed in this prestigious international tournament.”

Hunter won back-to-back medals as an assistant coach with Canada’s National Junior Team, earning gold in 2018 and silver in 2017. He also won a bronze medal as head coach of Canada’s National Men’s Under-18 Team at the 2015 IIHF U18 World Championship. Hunter is coming off his fourth season as head coach of the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League, guiding the franchise to its first Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy as regular-season champion. Prior to joining the Warriors, he was an NHL assistant coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs, San Jose Sharks and Washington Capitals. As a player, he suited up in 815 NHL games over 16 seasons with the Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, San Jose and Vancouver Canucks, capturing the Stanley Cup in 1989 with Calgary.

Dumont was named head coach and general manager of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 2012. He previously coached the Val-d’Or Foreurs (QMJHL), and was an assistant coach for two seasons with the Gatineau Olympiques (QMJHL). Dumont was also head coach of Team Quebec at the 2009 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.

Hulton has served as head coach of the Charlottetown Islanders of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for the past three seasons, and has also been general manager for the past two. Prior to joining the Islanders, he spent two seasons as general manager and head coach of the Tri-City Storm of the USHL. His international experience includes serving as associate coach of Canada’s under-16 team at the 2012 Winter Youth Olympic Games, and as an assistant coach with Canada’s National Junior Team at the IIHF World Junior Championship in 2004 and 2005, winning silver and gold. Hulton also spent two seasons as an assistant coach with the NHL’s Florida Panthers.

Kisio coached Canada’s National Men’s Summer Under-18 Team to a gold medal at the 2017 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup. He was also head coach of Team Canada White at the 2016 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, and added a silver medal as an assistant coach with Team Pacific at the 2014 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge. Kisio just completed his third season as head coach of the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes, guiding them to the league final. Prior to joining the Hurricanes, he spent eight seasons as an assistant coach with the Calgary Hitmen, reaching the semifinal at the Memorial Cup in 2010.

Czech-born hockey coach discovers Jewish roots

By Paul Lungen – Canadian Jewish News

When Czechoslovakian-born Dusan Kralik took his first drive down Bathurst Street after arriving in Toronto in the early 1990s, he saw something pretty familiar to Torontonians but totally foreign to him.

There, wearing clothing that clearly set them apart, were groups of Orthodox Jews walking freely. It got him thinking.

Back in Bratislava, where he was born, he knew there was some family connection to the Jewish people, but he wasn’t entirely sure what it was, or what being Jewish actually meant.

“No one talked about it,” Kralik says.

Raised a Roman Catholic, during Christmas he would receive as a gift what he now realizes was Hanukkah gelt. He recalls his mother keeping two sets of dishes and cutlery and that she cooked matzah balls.

He didn’t think too much about it. He was too busy working on his hockey career, which saw him suit up for the Czech national junior team at the world under-20 championships, facing the likes of Joe Nieuwendyk on Team Canada.

That was followed by a stint in the Czech pro league, and by the time he immigrated to Canada, on his own, he didn’t have much knowledge of a Jewish past.

But the Bathurst Street experience got him thinking. “To me, it was so fascinating,” he said. “I’m not in it, but I had a feeling of belonging.”

In 2007, Kralik, who was already developing a career as a hockey instructor in Toronto, was at the Pavilion ice rink in Vaughan, Ont., when he saw a Team Israel tryout. The players were wearing jerseys with Magen Davids right on the chest. Curious, he asked what was going on and was told he was watching Team Israel.

Kralik knew one of the kids on the team and approached Jean Perron, the ex-Montreal Canadiens head coach who was in charge of Team Israel, asking if he needed help.
“He took me in to help with the tryouts,” Kralik recalled.

Later, Kralik joined the team on a tour of North American cities, and when he heard the Israeli national anthem played in Chicago, with 2,000 spectators present, “I’m totally tearing,” he said.

A few months later the team was in Vienna for the IIHF World Championships, and despite undergoing a hip replacement operation only six weeks before, and despite the dangers of developing a blood clot, Kralik decided to join the team.

“I had to go. I had to be there. It was so close to my heart,” he said.

Once the tournament concluded, Kralik travelled to Bratislava to visit his grandmother. It was a telling visit.

She wanted to know what he was doing there, and when he showed her the Israeli team jersey, with the Star of David on its front, “she started to cry. She told me how the Nazis came in 1939, hunting them down and killing my great-grandfather.

“She said, ‘I’ll never stop hearing the dogs barking and the people yelling and screaming,’” Kralik recounted.

“Why didn’t you tell us?” he asked.

“It’s so dangerous,” he was told. “You have no idea. I tried to protect you.”

After his return, Kralik did more research into his family past, getting information from his grandmother’s best friend, who lived in New York. He learned that other members of his family were victims of the Nazis.

“I needed to find out what was missing in my life, the culture, the spirituality, what my family was not able to do freely,” he said.

Today, he has embraced his Jewish heritage. At the Maccabiah Games in 2013, Kralik took time off from his coaching duties to visit Jerusalem.

“I went to the Kotel and I never had such a feeling. When I went to the Western Wall, I trembled,” he said.

Comparisons to Sidney Crosby not easy for Alexis Lafreniere to ignore


He’s heard all the chatter about how good he is right now and how much better he’s projected to become.

It’s something that’s hard for Alexis Lafreniere to ignore when he’s already being touted as a future first overall NHL Draft pick – not for this year, or even next, but in 2020.

There are even endless comparisons to Sidney Crosby, who shares the distinction of being a No. 1 pick by the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic.

“A lot,” Lafreniere said when asked how often he hears is name in the same sentence as the Pittsburgh Penguins captain, “but I try to (disregard them). Eighty-seven is another player. He’s the best in the world. I try to do my job – what I do good.”

Lafreniere was the youngest but highest-scoring player at Canada’s world under-18 championship training camp last week. Canada’s tournament begins Thursday in Russia against the powerful Americans.

Hockey Canada waited until the second round of the CHL playoffs were complete before setting a roster for the opener, and only 2000-born players were being assured of selection. However, coach Don Hay said Lafreniere impressed early in camp and added he wouldn’t hesitate to give roster spots to younger players if they’re deserving.

Lafreniere then went out and netted a goal and added an assist in Canada’s first pre-tournament game, a 5-0 win over Slovakia on Sunday. He scored again in the final tune-up match, a 3-2 victory over Finland on Monday, to secure his place on the team.

His track record shouldn’t have left any doubt anyway.

Lafreniere was drafted first overall by Rimouski in 2017 after an 83-point effort with his hometown midget AAA Saint-Eustache Vikings. In his rookie QMJHL season he scored 42 goals as a 16-year-old — something no ‘Q’ player had done since Crosby.

Lafreniere also recorded 80 points with the Oceanic, becoming just the second person to reach that mark at his age since Crosby earned 135 points in 2003-04. (The other player is Angelo Esposito, an eventual Penguins first-rounder, who had 98 points for the Quebec Remparts in 2005-06.)

“I knew there was a lot of hype around him,” said goaltender Colten Ellis, a teammate on both Rimouski and Team Canada. “He’s fulfilled everything I thought he’d be.”

So, it’s not surprising Lafreniere is being mentioned in the same breath as Crosby, especially given the Rimouski connection.

Canadian assistant coach Daniel Renaud isn’t crazy about the references to the future Hall of Famer. But as the head coach of the rival Shawinigan Cataractes, Renaud knows full well the six-foot-one, 184-pound winger is a “dominant player.”

“He’s who he is. He’s Lafreniere,” Renaud said. “He’s gonna evolve into himself. It’s not fair to compare him to anybody right at this point in time. He’s just 16. But as a 16-year-old player, he was something to see this year. I’m really excited to have the chance to coach him.

“This year, every time we got a chance to play him, he made us pay the price big time. He got a couple points each and every night.”

Defending against Lafreniere requires the attention of every player on the ice, Renaud added.

Matching him one-on-one is a losing battle. When he does break through to get an unfettered chance, it’s a frightening proposition for the man in net.

“You never know what he’s going to do,” Ellis said. “He’s got a lot of tricks up his sleeve. It’s definitely a challenge every time he comes down on ya.

“He likes to do a little pump fake and go backhand, forehand, low blocker. He gets me with that quite a bit (in practice). But you can never cheat for it because, once he sees you cheating, he’ll just change it up and make you look stupid. He’s hard to read. He’s an awesome player.”

Lafreniere is quick to defer credit for his success to his coaches and teammates, particularly his over-age centreman and former Philadelphia Flyers prospect Samuel Dove-McFalls.

Lafreniere’s goal and point totals ranked second in QMJHL rookie scoring. The player ahead of him by two in each category was Halifax Mooseheads winger Filip Zadina – a projected top-five pick in the 2018 NHL Draft who’s two years older.

It seems like Lafreniere has taken a good first step towards the 2020 draft.

“Two years is a long time away. He can definitely handle it,” Ellis said. “He’s got a great mindset. He’s dealt with the pressure all year.”

There are areas in which Lafreniere can improve. Skating, shooting, and developing a consistent work ethic come to mind for Renaud.

His hockey sense, however, needs little tweaking.

“He sees everything on the ice, with and without the puck,” Renaud said. “When he has the puck, he can see open players that normally no one would be able to see. Without the puck, he’s able to find that free ice, open space, and get open and create offence out of nothing.

“You think you’re in full control and, bang, he sees something, and they have a pretty good scoring chance out of it.”

Sounds like No. 87, doesn’t it?

“It’s nice, but I think Crosby’s on another level,” Lafreniere said. “He’s already winning Cups and gold medals. I just try to do my stuff. That will be good.”

A Cape Bretoner grows the game in China

By Cape Breton Post

Jessica Wong was picked first overall by the Calgary Inferno in the 2013 Canadian Women’s Hockey League draft and after two seasons, called it a career.

Since then, she landed a job with Hockey Canada as a co-ordinator of membership development and lived in Calgary with her fiancée, high school sweetheart Mitchell Brewer of Baddeck, and their dog, Gus.

But an opportunity arose that she just couldn’t pass up: growing the game in China. It started with a call from Kunlun Red Star head coach Digit Murphy, who asked Wong to come out of retirement to join the fledgling club. The Red Star and the Vanke Rays were the two CWHL expansion teams from China for the 2017-18 season.

“At this point, it was not really about my career, it was about Team China,” said the 27-year-old, who’s back home in Baddeck for a visit. Players from Kunlun and Vanke skate for China’s national team that’s competing in the 2018 IIHF Women’s World Championship Division 1 ‘B’ Championship in Italy this week.

“I was kind of done with the more competitive stuff. I had a good run and a great career, and once I was able to put the more competitive side aside and focus more on them and try and help them grow, I just thought it was something I truly wanted to do. I was really glad I had the opportunity to be with them this first year.”

The Red Star team plays 45 minutes outside of Shenzen in southeast China, a city of over 12.5 million people located in Guangdong Province.

Wong said the sport has been growing steadily, but it did take some time. During the team’s first game, many fans who came out to watch were silent, mainly because they weren’t sure when to cheer or were unfamiliar with the rules of the game.

To remedy the situation, a program was printed for the next game that had team rosters, as well as a guide with the rules of hockey and when to cheer.

“It was pretty funny,” Wong said. “It’s got to start somewhere, right? We’re growing the game little by little and that’s something I’ll always remember.”

Although she came out of retirement, Wong didn’t lose a step. The blue-liner finished with 10 goals and 14 assists for 24 points in 28 games this season, led the team in ice time and was a finalist for the league’s defenceman of the year.

She also helped the squad move from expansion club to league contender. The Red Star reached the Clarkson Cup championship game but lost 2-1 in overtime to the Markham Thunder in Toronto on March 25.

“Overall, it was an amazing year,” said Wong. The Red Star finished with a 21-6-0-1 record for second place in the standings. “It was definitely more than we thought we could do and we’re super proud we were able to participate in the Clarkson Cup. Unfortunately, the outcome wasn’t what we wanted, but we definitely are proud of how we played all season.”

Playing in China also had a special meaning for Wong.

“Being half Chinese, my grandmother lived three hours south of Shenzen and it does really mean a lot, just to see what China’s all about,” she said. “It was my first time and it opened my eyes up a lot to see where she grew up and came from, it definitely means a lot. I’m really happy I took this experience.”

Wong is the most accomplished women’s hockey player ever from Cape Breton. She skated for Canada’s national women’s under-22 team in 2010 and 2011, winning gold at the MLP Cup both years. She also won gold at the 2009 IIHF World Women’s Under-18 Championship and was also a gold medalist at the 2015 Nations Cup with Canada’s women’s development team.

Wong played NCAA Division 1 hockey for four seasons at the University Minnesota Duluth. In her first season in 2009-10, she scored the winning goal in the third overtime to give the Bulldogs a 3-2 win over the Cornell Big Red in the final of the Frozen Four championship. She was named team captain in her final season in 2012-13 and graduated as the all-time leader in goal scoring among defencemen.

As for next season, Wong wasn’t sure what the future holds. She said there are still some community events and camps she’ll attend with the team this summer. In the meantime, she and her fiancée will get married in July.

Player Profile

Name: Jessica Wong

Hometown: Baddeck

Height: 5-6

Position: Defence

Age: 27

• Played for the Kunlun Red Star of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League in 2017-18.

• First overall pick of the Calgary Inferno in the 2013 CWHL draft.

• Four time gold medalist for Canada in international competition.

From the Land of Canaan to Canada, Israel’s first hockey star shoots for NHL

David Levin in action while playing for the Toronto-based Don Mills Flyers in the 2014-15 season. (Courtesy)

By Robert Starner – The Times of Israel

 At age 10, David Levin decided it was time to leave the Land of Canaan for Canada — to become a professional ice hockey player.

At the time, the Israeli boy didn’t know how to skate or speak English and had never experienced a Canadian winter. So back in 2010, his parents brushed off his request, thinking it “just a phase.”

Two years later, Levin persisted.

This time, to his surprise, they relented and let him go live in hockey’s promised land with the then-preposterous goal of becoming the first Israeli-born player in the National Hockey League (NHL).

Today, his aspiration is no longer far-fetched: Levin stands a good chance of being selected in the league’s annual draft of young players in June. Thanks to his innate skill, tenacity, hard work and all-consuming sense of purpose, he’s turned what once seemed a highly-improbable mission into a now credible scenario.

Like Omri Casspi, who in 2009 became the first Israeli to compete in the National Basketball Association (NBA), Levin seeks to break new ground for Israeli athletes by being the first to play in the world’s elite professional hockey league.

“I want my country to actually see that I’ll do whatever it takes to make the NHL, which would be a huge accomplishment for both me and for Israel,” says Levin, 18, who was born and grew up in a small town near Netanya. “I want to show everyone that any kid from whatever country can make it in the NHL if he wants to follow his dreams and do what’s necessary.”

How a nice Israeli boy met hockey

Levin spoke with The Times of Israel a few hours before he and his current team, the Sudbury Wolves, played in a recent Ontario Hockey League (OHL) game against the Niagara Ice Dogs in St. Catharines, a small city that’s a 120 km (75 mile) drive south of Toronto. We spoke in the modest hotel where the Wolves were staying, after arriving earlier in the day on their team bus following a five-hour drive from Sudbury in northern Ontario.

Despite being from Israel, where hockey is, at best, marginal, Levin’s involvement in the sport is less surprising given his family’s background. His mother, Lena, moved to Israel from Russia where hockey is popular. But more importantly, his father, Pavel, immigrated from Lativa where he played recreational hockey and was a professional soccer player.

In Israel, after first playing for the Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer team, Pavel created a youth sports club and a roller and ice hockey school for which he takes students to Metulla on the border with Lebanon to play at Israel’s best ice hockey facility.

“I went to Metulla a couple of times to try ice hockey,” says Levin, “but I didn’t really like it. I couldn’t skate so I went back to roller hockey.”

Until age 9, he also played soccer, tennis and basketball — but excelled in roller hockey under his father’s guidance. For several years, he played for an Israeli youth team, competing in tournaments in Europe from 2010. Due to his standout ability, coaches representing several countries at the tournament suggested Pavel send his son to Canada to develop his hockey talent on ice. That planted the idea in Levin’s head.

Since then, his hockey odyssey has proven compelling enough to attract considerable media attention in North America in recent years.

David Levin playing inline hockey in Israel before he learned
to play ice hockey in Canada.

In a lengthy 2016 profile in The New York Times, Levin spoke of how he was influenced by watching NHL games on TV with his father in Israel, starting at age 7 or 8. He said that’s how he developed a love for the game, supplemented by watching NHL highlights on YouTube.

“I remember seeing a film about Sidney Crosby when he was young and how he worked hard every day on his hockey skills to get better. That’s what I wanted to do, too,” Levin told the reporter, referring to the current Pittsburgh Penguins superstar.

Levin, a left-handed forward, is now in his third year with the Sudbury Wolves. They are one of 20 teams in the OHL, a major junior league closely followed by scouts for NHL teams. After making the playoffs last year, Sudbury is struggling this season, mired in last place in the 10-team Eastern Conference. Likewise, Levin’s offensive output is down from last year, in part due to a major knee injury in late October that caused him to miss 18 games. As of mid-February, he had 12 goals and 13 assists for 25 points.

Cory Stillman, head coach of the Wolves, is a big supporter of Levin.

“Despite how late he began playing hockey, I’m not surprised where David is today,” says Stillman, who played 16 seasons in the NHL. “Great athletes often pick up a sport at a later age. David developed his hands and shot playing roller hockey. Skating came after. The more he works and plays, the better his skating will become. He’s still young and showing improvement. I think he has a good chance of being drafted in June.”

In 2015, following an excellent season (39 goals, 41 assists) in Toronto’s Minor Midget Hockey League, Sudbury chose Levin as the first overall pick in that year’s OHL priority selection draft.

It linked him to some of hockey’s biggest names, such as Connor McDavid, Steven Stamkos and John Tavares, all current NHL stars who previously were first overall picks in the OHL.

“Being the top choice was amazing,” Levin later told a reporter for the NHL website. “It was the best moment of my life. It brought me one step closer to my dream. But after a couple of games, no one really cares anymore. You just have to show on the ice why you went first overall in the draft.”

It was pretty heady stuff for a 15-year-old kid, especially one who only three years earlier had begun a new life in Canada with almost no ice hockey experience, had never worn a full set of hockey equipment and who didn’t even know how to stop on his skates.

Israeli-born David Levin didn’t put on skates until he was 12.

Levin arrived in Toronto in the summer of 2012 and stayed with his aunt and uncle, who had previously lived in Israel after moving there from Russia. Weeks later, just shy of his 13th birthday, he enrolled at a private high school that specializes in developing elite sports talent. There, Levin began the transition from roller skates to ice skates under the tutelage of the hockey staff.

“At first, it was really hard for me,” Levin recalls. “I didn’t know any English. I was sitting in class without understanding anything. As for the hockey, I didn’t know how to skate and the first time I went on the ice I crashed into the boards because I didn’t know how to stop.”

Whatever Levin may have lacked then, his determination helped see him through any difficulties. When he wasn’t in class, he was either on the ice or in the gym. In 2014, he earned a spot on a local team in the city’s highest youth hockey division and had a strong season. His parents and brother came from Israel to watch him play in the championship which Levin’s team lost in overtime.

Better late than never

The road to hockey glory is long, arduous and highly competitive. For most professional players, it begins at age 3 or 4 when they start skating, followed a year or two later by playing organized hockey — in places, such as Canada, where the sport is popular and arenas are plentiful. Gifted players also often play for their school teams before being scouted by major junior teams. Only a tiny minority ultimately make it to the NHL.

While Levin may share the same destination with his current teammates, his route for getting there has been radically different from all the rest.

“The biggest challenge for me was leaving my parents, younger brother and best friends behind in Israel,” says Levin. “That was tough and it’s still not easy.”

In Sudbury, home to 160,000 residents, the biggest difficulty for Levin has been the extremely cold winters. Located 415 km northwest of Toronto, the city has a small Jewish community of 250 people (that surprisingly has never reached out to their Israeli hockey phenom).

Levin is the only Jewish player on his team and sole Israeli in the OHL. On a few occasions, opposing players have taunted him about his background.

“There have been a few incidents against me,” Levin says calmly. “Some happened when we were playing in other rinks. Those who made comments about Israel thought they were jokes but I didn’t find them funny because I’m from there and I know what’s happening there and they don’t. But I just have to keep moving forward and not let it bother me. It doesn’t get me down as I know I’m well liked, especially by my teammates.”

When asked to elaborate on what happened, he becomes circumspect.

“It doesn’t really matter the specific comments,” adds Levin. “I prefer not to say the names of the players who said negative things or even identify the teams they’re on.”

Last year, a player from an opposing team was suspended for 10 games after the referee heard what he said to Levin during a game. The player later called Levin to apologize.

As for his own team, made up mostly of Canadians and Americans along with two Russians, Levin insists he’s never heard a negative word from his teammates.

When he dons his equipment and Sudbury Wolves jersey, with “71” emblazoned on the back, Levin feels he’s playing for his team, himself and his country.

“Coincidentally, the main colors of the Sudbury jersey are the Israeli colors of blue and white,” says Levin. “Because that makes me think of Israel, when I’m stepping on the ice, I try to do my best for people in Israel including those who think they can be hockey players too. I want to show everyone they should never give up.”

Unlike other OHL players, Levin has faced the question of his compulsory army service in Israel. In late 2016, he received a temporary deferment from the IDF. His family and agent are working on getting an extended one that’s granted extremely rarely to elite athletes.

Having turned 18 last fall, Levin is keenly aware his friends back home are now serving in the IDF while he’s in Canada playing hockey.

“I love my country, all the people there and that everyone is helping each other,” says Levin, who’s spoken to both the Israeli embassy in Ottawa and the consulate in Toronto about this matter. “Without wanting to sound cocky, not many kids have a talent that would allow them to be the first person from their country to be drafted and possibly play in the NHL. So, people back home have to respect that. It’s going to make Israelis proud.”

Asked what the embassy and consulate told him, Levin answered: “They said, ‘Just worry about hockey for now and get drafted by an NHL team in June and then we’ll go from there.’”

Levin, who at 1.77 m (5’10”) and 77 kilos (170 lbs.) is smaller than most NHL players today, is upbeat about his hockey future.

“I think there are really good chances I’ll be drafted,” he says. “If I keep playing well during the rest of this season, playing hard, I’m optimistic. I really don’t care what team chooses me. It’s my dream to be drafted and play in the NHL.”

Over the NHL’s 100-year history, relatively few Jews and no Israelis have played in the league. In 2000, Max Birbraer, who was born in Kazakhstan and only moved to Israel when he was 14, became the first and only player with Israeli citizenship to be drafted by an NHL team, but never played in a league game.

On ice, in the wolf pack

Following the interview, Levin joined his teammates for the five-minute bus ride from the hotel to the Meridan Centre in St. Catharines. After the pre-game warm-up and the playing of Canada’s national anthem, the Sudbury Wolves faced off against the Niagara Ice Dogs before 4,000 fans.

Throughout the game, playing center and left wing, Levin showed great concentration and poise. Late in the third period, he set up his team’s tying goal on a power play, making a slap-pass to a linemate who scored a few minutes before Niagara won in overtime.

The next day, in an afternoon game in Hamilton, 75 km (46 miles) west of St. Catharines, Levin scored one of Sudbury’s two goals as his team lost 3-2.

This is no ordinary amateur sports team: During the six-month, 68-game regular season, the Wolves play, on average, three games a week. Many involve extended bus rides from Sudbury. The longest trip is eight hours to Flint, Michigan and slightly less to Erie, Pennsylvania. Coupled with almost daily practices, it’s a demanding routine.

Levin’s parents stay up late to watch most games via a live stream on their computer at home in Israel. The next day, Pavel often calls his son to discuss his on-ice performance.

Levin is constantly working on improving his game. He has no choice if he wants to advance.

“Like many players, David needs to work on consistency in his game,” says Coach Stillman. “To become a pro, you need to be good every day, in practices and games.”

In June, Levin’s parents, brother and agent will join him in Dallas for the NHL draft.

So far, scouts from five NHL teams (Pittsburgh, Chicago, New Jersey, Buffalo and Calgary) have interviewed him as part of their evaluation process of possible draftees.

“They ask you all kinds of questions,” says Levin. “Most are about you and your life off the ice. It’s really important for them that you’re a good person. They ask about your family and what kind of guy you are. They also give you questions to answer in writing. If they think you’re selfish and bad with your teammates, you’re done. I think it’s good NHL teams do this because they put a lot of money into everything and they don’t want a player to embarrass them.”

Amid the pressure and spotlight, Levin remains even-keeled and steadfast.

“With his world-class talent and burning desire to be the best, I believe David will be drafted in June,” says Ryan Barnes, his agent since 2015. “He has elite skill and great hockey sense, and is driven to constantly get better.”

If Levin is a pioneer when it comes to Israelis in North American hockey, he’s already inspired others, including his 12-year-old brother who has taken up the sport and hopes to follow in his big brother’s footsteps.

David Levin, right, with Cory Stillman, the coach of the
Sudbury Wolves.

“Two Israeli kids from my dad’s hockey school moved to Canada after me,” says Levin. “There were three Israelis at the school that I attended in Toronto. Two of them have since returned to Israel but one is still there and he hopes to do what I’ve done. That’s his dream.”

Regardless of whether Levin makes the NHL, he’s already demonstrated dreams are worth pursuing, even if, at first, they seem unattainable. No small feat for an 18-year-old far from home.

2018 Olympics see historic first for Canadian women’s hockey

2018 Olympics see historic first for Canadian women's hockey

By Bryn Levy –

As the Canadian women’s hockey team gears up for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, one player has made history before even stepping onto the ice.

Defenceman Brigette Lacquette is the first-ever First Nations woman to make the team, and she’s been basking in an outpouring of well-wishes from across the country ever since she cracked the roster.

“I’m super excited and I think having all that extra support from all the First Nations across Canada is definitely very special for me,” she said Tuesday during a national media call.

Lacquette is originally from the Cote First Nation near Kamsack, Sask., but moved with her family to the small community of Mallard, Man. that she now calls home.

Growing up, Lacquette said seeing fellow First Nations Manitoban Jordin Tootoo skate in the 2003 World Juniors was a moment that made her believe she could make it to the world’s biggest stage.

Now, she said she hopes her play in Pyeongchang sends a message to the next wave of little girls imagining themselves wearing the Maple Leaf.

“You can achieve anything you put your mind to. It doesn’t matter where you come from. You can always achieve your dreams,” she said.

Lacquette said she was thankful for the support she’s had from her First Nation, coaches and teammates along the way, but said she was especially grateful to her parents, Terance and Anita,

After being a late cut ahead of the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia, she said it was a thrill to get to call her Dad this year and tell him his hours of coaching and building a backyard rink for her every winter had paid off.

“There’s only wi-fi, so he was hanging out by the wi-fi waiting for me to call him and he was just super excited. To finally tell him that I made the team was special.”

Lacquette and the rest of Team Canada will be looking for their fifth-consecutive gold medal in women’s hockey when the Winter Games kick off Feb. 9.

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