By Curtis Rush – Toronto Star
GEORGE TOWN, CAYMAN ISLANDS—After trading long Canadian winters for the perpetual summer of this luxurious Caribbean tax haven, Bill Messer was content to enjoy the soft sands and warm waters of island living. The only thing he really missed was hockey.
So in 2003, when he saw a television report about the nascent World Pond Hockey Championship, he began plotting a strategy to get a team from his adopted home ready to play in his native country, Canada.
The initial response to his inquiry, however, felt like a cold slap in the face.
The tournament organizer, Danny Braun, warned Messer in an email that it was frigid up in Canada and that hockey was a very fast, very rough game.
As he read the email, Messer said, he realized that he had not made it clear to Braun that he was Canadian.
“He thinks I’m Caymanian,” Messer said, laughing as he relived the moment inside a restaurant across from Grand Cayman’s famous Seven Mile Beach.
Braun remembers his initial reaction well.
“I had a bit of a chuckle thinking this was going to be like the movie Cool Runnings, about the Jamaican bobsled team,” he said in a telephone interview.
What began in 2002 as a way for Braun to raise money for a new recreation centre in his community has grown into a sprawling international event. Twenty games will go on at once on Roulston Lake, with the scaled-down teams playing on scaled-down rinks.
More than 100 teams will take part this year, and although Puerto Rico and Bermuda have sent teams in the past, the Cayman Breakaway are the region’s experienced hands at on-ice international relations.
When the puck drops Thursday, it will be the team’s 13th straight appearance in the event. The seemingly unlikely hockey outfit has been among the top 32 playoff teams on three occasions and has a winning record overall. Throughout the years, the Breakaway have become media darlings, and the gifts they bring from home — chiefly rum and rum cake — have made them popular with the other teams that venture to Plaster Rock.
In 2003, Messer faced long odds. The founder of an asset-management firm, Messer, now 55, had to find teammates. And ice. There was — and still is — no ice rink on Grand Cayman.
Over rum and cokes, Messer first recruited his friend Norm Klein, 53, a lawyer who had played peewee hockey with the NHL Hall of Famer Ron Francis in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
The two then created a short list to fill out the roster.
“When we first put this together, one of the criteria we had was that we had to be Cayman based,” Messer said. “Otherwise, it would be bogus.”
Some potential players were too old; some were too fat. Another was ruled out because his wife would not let him go.
“It’s not about ability, it’s about commitment,” Klein said. “Got a wife? Kids? That might be a problem. You’re 2,000 miles away. Are you prepared to commit to this?”
Commitment was necessary from the very beginning. Hurricane Ivan struck Grand Cayman in September 2004, flooding the island, submerging homes and knocking out power.
“Both Bill and I were unable to live in our houses while they were rebuilt for the next six to 12 months,” Klein said.
Klein tried in-line skating to keep his legs in shape, but it was not the same. The team needed to find ice, and needed it fast.
Among the original recruits was Joe Stasiuk, 57, from Toronto, a consultant to the energy and aluminum industries who played some Junior B hockey with Wayne Gretzky. He was put in charge of finding the ice, an undertaking that meant looking 1,000 kilometres to the north in Florida.
The stars suddenly aligned. A lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 NHL season left behind a thirst for hockey.
“We came in at the right time for a novelty story,” Messer said.
Soon, the team got Cayman Airways on board as a sponsor. The airline promised to fly the players, at no cost, to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s practice site to train for six weekends leading up to the tournament.
The first time they showed up at the practice site, they were met with laughter. They were given unfavourable practice times — 11 p.m. or 6 a.m. — but that was just another obstacle to overcome.
There were more hardships ahead. Throughout the years, two players who are no longer with the team went through divorces. Messer’s wife, Eleanor, died of cancer in 2015.
And then there is the march of time and the pull of gravity. Overweight and showing their age, team members have instituted yearly weigh-ins to hold one another to account. Their preparation is based on the fear of embarrassing themselves on the ice, though that is rare.
Indeed, it is the opposition that is sometimes embarrassed, as a young squad from the Netherlands found out firsthand one year in a loss to the Cayman Breakaway.
“They were just beside themselves,” Klein recalled. “How do you play the Cayman Islands and lose? And we had years on these guys. Only later did they find out that we were from Ontario, Manitoba or Saskatchewan. That made them feel better.”
By 2006, the Breakaway were a feel-good story in a sport still recovering from the NHL lockout. The team donated a jersey for display in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and players attended the ceremony in Toronto.
They see their quasi-celebrity status as a chance to build up the sport in the Cayman Islands, where NHL games are regularly shown in sports bars and roller-hockey and ball-hockey programs have been in place since the 1980s.
“We’re trying to promote the game,” Klein said. “This is not just a bunch of old guys living their dream.”
Christine Maltman, Klein’s wife, successfully pitched a fundraising idea, incorporating a weekend hockey camp, to the Lightning. Three dozen youngsters from the Cayman Islands took the ice in 2011 with former NHL players Dave Andreychuk and Brian Bradley. They were also treated to a postgame meet-and-greet with the Lightning’s captain at the time, Vinny Lecavalier.
While hockey has been making inroads in warmer climes — Auston Matthews, picked first overall in the 2016 draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs, grew up in Arizona — no one is expecting a star to come directly out of the Cayman Islands anytime soon.
But that does not mean that potential NHL talent cannot start out in the islands.
One current team member, Darren Lawrence, a partner at an accounting firm chartered in New Brunswick and a former Junior B player who spent time on a line with Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks, moved his family back to Canada so his son Josh, then 6, could trade roller hockey for the real thing after showing professional potential.
“We wanted to move back before he would start to miss out on the key development ages for hockey,” Lawrence said.
Josh, 15, is now attracting the attention of coaches and scouts while playing at a hockey academy at South Kent School in Connecticut. He is considering how best to further his career and is projected to be a future NHL draft pick.
“He is trying to decide if the Quebec Major Junior League or the NCAA is the right way to go for him,” Lawrence said.
Though Lawrence still plays with the Breakaway despite his return to Canada, the rest of the team has stayed put with members having spent more than 20 years in the Cayman Islands.
“This is home,” said Klein, who has a teenage daughter and son.
But for one week a year, home is a sheet of Canadian ice under their feet. With a splash of rum.
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