By: Adam Cohen Issue: Sports Section: Collaborator Profile
Peace and Progress on Skates
The wide smiles of little boys and girls portray simple motivations as they lace up their hockey skates: have fun, wear cool equipment, be part of a team, and don a colorful team jersey. Complex considerations like international détente, cross-cultural collaboration, and political conflicts don’t register in the typical 4-year-old’s concept of hockey.
Stepping onto the ice of a suburban New Jersey rink, 4-year-old Kevin shoots the puck and watches as it smoothly slides toward the goal. It’s the first shot of his hockey journey, a competitive journey that would end in a most unexpected place 17 years later: 6,000 miles and seven time zones away on the Canada Centre Arena ice sheet in Metula, Israel.
When Kevin Alpert, now 22 and a 2009 University of Colorado (CU-Boulder) graduate, first tightened the laces on his skates at 4 years old, he would never have guessed that his love of hockey would lead to the honor of playing on the USA all-Jewish team. His life and hockey career would take him from New Jersey to Colorado, around Europe and, ultimately, to Metula’s Canada Centre rink within Katyusha-missile range of a Hezbollah stronghold in southern Lebanon.
It’s a unique journey made possible through the spirit of the tradition-steeped game of hockey, the support of Colorado Springs-based USA Hockey, and a strong worldwide Jewish community whose ties run thousands of years deep. For all the geopolitical and culture complexities, in the end, Kevin and his teammates discovered the simple game they love transcends boundaries and offers a rich tapestry of teamwork and collaborative lessons.
Youth Hockey Dreams
Issue 7 Ice Hockey Detente pic002 The youngest of four hockey-playing brothers, Kevin began skating as a 4-year-old and then joined the Morristown (New Jersey) Colonials youth team. After a move to Colorado as an 8-year-old, hockey provided a quick entrance to new friends and fun. Playing in the Littleton Hawks program through high school, Kevin participated on competitive travel teams as he navigated cleverly named youth age group levels – Mini-Mite, Mite, Squirt, Pee Wee, Bantam, and Midget. With improvements in his skills and a growing competitive drive, Kevin advanced to AAA elite-level teams in high school.
American-born hockey players face long odds in advancing beyond youth ranks. Youth hockey players in the U.S. seeking a college scholarship suffer the challenges of competing for limited post-youth opportunities in a non-mainstream sport whose highest-level talent comes from our neighbors in Canada. At the professional level, Canadians represent 53 percent of players in the National Hockey League (NHL) while Americans just 19 percent. The growing European influence in the NHL accounts for 28 percent of players. The NHL Colorado Avalanche 25-man roster has just three American-born players: John Michael-Liles, Craig Anderson, and Matt Hendricks. (Paul Stastny, born in Quebec City, Canada, has dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship and will compete for the 2010 USA Olympic team.)
Winding down his youth career, Kevin weighed the alternatives. He could leave home to play Junior-level hockey for 1 or 2 years and hope for a college scholarship – with no guarantees – or enter CU as a freshman. “I chose the certainty of a better education at CU”, says Kevin, now employed in the financial services field, and he hung up his gear, believing his hockey career was over. Unaware that CU fielded a club (non-scholarship) team in the Division II American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA), he was thrilled when a Facebook friend sent him a message about a tryout.
CU’s team was in transition; simultaneously holding the tryout and replacing its coach, the team’s returning seniors and team captain ran the tryout. Selections were made after one practice and Kevin was named to the team as a forward.
From Utah to Europe and Points in Between
Issue 7 Ice Hockey Detente pic003 Beyond the university logos on the front of the jerseys, life in the ACHA differs greatly from big-time NCAA sports. Players pay around $1,200-$1,500 per year for ice time and provide their own equipment at great expense. In addition to skates and protective equipment, most players break and replace multiple hockey sticks per year at a cost of a $100 (or more) each. Per diem food allowances favor all-you-can-eat buffets and drive-thru cuisine versus sit-down meals. Despite these relative inconveniences, ACHA players experience the same thrills, competition for league and national championships, and pride of their NCAA counterparts.
Unheralded but confident, Kevin started his inaugural CU Buffs season as a “healthy scratch,” with the coaches deciding to leave him out of uniform and on the sidelines. Three games passed until he suited up and, after a player injury put him on the top line, Kevin notched a 3-goal hat trick in his first game vs. Utah State. He’d remain a mainstay in CU’s line-up through graduation and average around 30 goals a season playing in ACHA’s West Region with other teams from Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Texas, Arizona, California, Washington, and Oregon.
A highlight of Kevin’s CU career came as he was named to ACHA’s Select (All-Star) team in the 2007-2008 season. The team swept through Europe, winning all five of its games against European league teams from Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic.
A Calling for Country and Cultural Collaboration
Again facing the end of his hockey career, Kevin’s CU coach put him in touch with a contact at USA Hockey’s Colorado Springs headquarters. He considered opportunities to play in Europe, where many professional hockey leagues operate, until reaching Wayne Sellers, the coordinator of USA Hockey’s World Jewish Hockey team. Several phone calls later, Kevin received an invite to join the 2009 Team USA entrant for the 2nd World Jewish Cup hockey tournament.
Joining his teammates in New York City, a 30-minute team practice was followed by a 12-hour flight to Tel Aviv and 3-hour drive to Metula, Israel. Through the proximity and struggle of travel, a group of individuals began a transformation to become a team.
Kevin took comfort knowing that the common language and experience of hockey facilitated the process of building trust and relationships.
In Kevin’s words, “Hockey guys are a different breed. We’re a rare bunch playing a demanding sport. This team had the same types of characters that are always in the locker room.”
Before arriving in Israel, Kevin initially had fears about the political tensions and dangers in the region. Just 3 years earlier, the world anxiously watched a 34-day conflict between Hezbollah paramilitary forces and the Israeli army that turned the environs surrounding Metula and northern Israel into a war zone, killing over 1,200 Lebanese and Israeli soldiers and civilians. From the window of his room, Kevin could see a Hezbollah camp.
Local residents welcomed their American-Jewish visitors enthusiastically and helped the team understand how to accommodate the potential dangers in the region. Still, the realities of life in Israel and the Middle East region were sobering.
On a trip to Tel Aviv, Kevin visited teammate Alec Kirschner’s relatives for dinner. He listened as Alec’s 18-year-old cousin, a young woman preparing to serve her mandatory 2-year stint in the Israeli Defense Force, and her boyfriend who would serve for 3 years, described their feelings about military service. He also met young adults who had just completed their service. While none of them wanted to fight or to do harm to others, they understood their country’s service needs. Some indicated that their military experience made them passionate about creating positive change in the region, while others were disillusioned.
Back on the ice, teams from France and Russia joined perennial powerhouse teams from the U.S. and Canada. Host Israel fielded its national team, a squad missing several key players due to injury or non-availability, and in transition from aging professional and semi-professional players to a younger foundation. Tensions on the ice were restricted to competitive desires to win, as players from all five nations shared a common ancestral Jewish background and love and respect for a spirited game of hockey.
Metula’s Canada Centre, Israel’s sole remaining Olympic-sized venue after a second rink was destroyed in a military attack, provided a welcome respite from the stifling July summer heat. A round-robin tournament format pitted each team against the others for medal round positioning. In the round robin, Team USA narrowly beat Israel, 4-3, then captured a thrilling 3-2 overtime victory against Canada. In the medal round, Team USA overwhelmed Canada to capture gold, while Israel defeated France for the bronze.
Collaboration Creates Victories for Everyone
Sporting tournaments always feature winning and losing sides, with the final scoreboard as the sole judge of ultimate success. But the World Jewish Hockey tournament, organized by the Israeli Ice Hockey Federation, achieved broad benefits for many.
Non-Israeli Jews played the sport they love in their ancestral and spiritual homeland, experienced the rich culture of the area, and gained a greater appreciation for the political challenges and opportunities in the region. Hockey gained exposure in a country where it is not well known or traditional, sparking increased interest from youth and adults. Awareness and interest of the sport was raised with a goal of building a rink in Tel Aviv, the country’s population center.
For Kevin, Alec, and their teammates, their experience represented a victory greater than the trophy they proudly brandished. Sport provided them with an opportunity to have fun, play the game the right way, and remove the barriers between countries out on the rink. Teammates and competitors came together, supported each other on and off the ice, and shared their respect for the game. They made some great friends and found that sport can make the world a closer, more collaborative community. And, of course, they got to wear cool gear and colorful jerseys.
Adam Cohen is an ICOSA Advisor and hockey dad. As principal of Accelerant Performance Solutions, he helps organizations transform strategic, operational, and human performance. For more information, visit www.accelerantperformance.com.