Left to Right: Matthew Robins, Kaan Budak (Head Coach Polis Akademisi, Ankara), Craig Klinkhoff
Left to Right: Matthew Robins, Kaan Budak (Head Coach Polis Akademisi, Ankara), Craig Klinkhoff

FEATURE: Hockey without borders

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Hockey is embedded in the fabric of Canadian culture. Many Canadians take for granted the accessibility of their hockey resources—ample ice time, new and used equipment, and willing coaches that are available in almost all Canadian towns and cities. However, in smaller hockey communities around the globe, such as Ankara, Turkey, and Subotica, Serbia, resources are more limited. This is where Hockey Sans Frontières (HSF) steps in.

HSF was founded in 2009 by a group of Canadians who played professionally in Serbia after competing at the junior level. Upon returning to Canada, the group sought out ways to give back to the communities that had supported them. They believed the most direct way of giving back and facilitating growth in these local areas was through coaching. For this reason, the HSF became committed to sending coaches abroad to help run hockey clinics, and organize grassroots initiatives in emerging hockey communities. Many McGillians have been at the forefront of this noble initiative, including Serbian-born Marko Kovacevic, and current Redmen assistant coach Dan Jacob.

Hockey Without Borders co-founder Daniel Jacob (Center) in Bled, Slovenia.
Hockey Without Borders co-founder Daniel Jacob (Center) in Bled, Slovenia.

The Tribune had the opportunity to sit down with two members of the McGill community currently involved in the HSF project, Craig Klinkhoff and Matthew Robins, to discuss the impact, on and off the ice, of the HSF’s non-profit global initiative.

During their time in Serbia,“[The HSF group] saw that the program there wasn’t anything [like in Canada], and that the [Serbian] kids suffered because of it,” Robins said. “They didn’t have as much of an opportunity as they could potentially have if there was the proper infrastructure in place, starting with coaches … To actually send someone there, as opposed to sending a cheque … is the most direct and sustainable way to support a hockey community.”

The group came to realize the value of their contribution to the community. While they were not able to send hundreds of pairs of skates or donate thousands of dollars, they could spare a few hours sharing their knowledge and passion for hockey with young players with the desire to learn.

As part of the initiative, Robins and Klinkhoff travelled together this past summer to Ankara, Turkey, to help run a week-long training camp. Admittedly, the two were nervous and unsure of what they were getting themselves into. However, they soon discovered that despite multiple limitations—such as the lack of resources and other social factors—Ankara has a passionate men’s and women’s hockey community.

The coaches’ arrival was celebrated with great enthusiasm.

Hockey Without Borders ambassador Uros Brestovac in Subotica, Serbia, working with his skating class.
Hockey Without Borders ambassador Uros Brestovac in Subotica, Serbia, working with his skating class.

“From the moment we arrived, everyone took care of us and treated us like kings for six days,” Klinkhoff said. “They joined us off the ice anywhere we went.”

After six days of running on-ice clinics, and spending time with the Turkish players, Klinkhoff felt that he was part of the community and realized that his assistance was valued more than he could have expected.

“I love to travel and I could never have an experience like that anywhere else in the world. But because of hockey, I was able to be part of the community. I did nothing to deserve it other than show up, ” Klinkhoff said. “One of the guys [said] it was one of the best weeks of [his] life. And he’s my age. It’s one thing when a young kid says it, but [when] someone my age said it—that hit home.”

For Robins, the experience was a display of hockey in its most genuine expression.

“[In North America], there are certain implications at different levels … you get involved [with issues of] money, and scholarships, and it can get a little off track,” he said. “There, it was hockey in its purest form. People there played for the love of it and that’s it.”

Robins and Klinkhoff have remained close with all of the players they coached, a testament to the bond that can be created by sharing an interest in sports, even in a short amount of time.

“It’s amazing. We’re still in touch with them. The impact [and] bonding that happen[ed] over six days of hockey is unbelievable,” Klinkhoff said. “We released the video [of the trip] and they saw it, and they’re going crazy … we tell them that they’re stars in Canada.”

Matthew Robins (Top Left) at his last practice in Subotica, Serbia.
Matthew Robins (Top Left) at his last practice in Subotica, Serbia.

Thinking of ways to move ahead, Klinkhoff and Robins want to give their support in other hockey communities. In January 2013, they will travel around the globe to help other places in need of assistance, such as Israel, South Africa, Japan, and South Korea. They are willing to travel anywhere, as long as there is a community who needs their help.

While Robin and Klinkhoff find inspiration in HSF’s success in Serbia, and genuinely believe that there is always potential for growth, they are aware of the struggles that these hockey communities face as they strive to maintain their programs.

“The Serbian under-8 and under-10 teams would play against teams from Czech Republic and Austria—strong hockey programs—and they would be able to compete. But, as soon as they are under-12, under-14, under-16, they can’t,” Robins said. “That’s all because of [lack of] resources.”

The HSF stresses the need to promote grassroots initiatives that ensure the future of the hockey communities. For Robins, the success of hockey projects in these areas largely depends on the commitment and expertise of local coaches.

“We’re looking for those types of communities that don’t have as much opportunity,” Robins said. “Before we got [to Serbia], there were two coaches for 200 kids. For the team I coach here in Montreal, [there] are 5 coaches for 15 kids … Their programs can’t really grow. They’re stuck. There’s only so much those coaches can impart on that many players. By providing more coaches, you can grow the hockey community.”

“In Turkey … there was one coach there running this camp … he was the pillar of the community. If he wasn’t there, none of the kids [would be] there,” Klinkhoff added. “He created a community through hockey. They all became friends. There was that added incentive to become part of that group.”

Robins’ and Klinkhoff’s hope is that their hockey communities become able to sustain themselves over time.

“Eventually over time, the people and the community there can take over … and their hockey community [will take off],” Robins said. “Kids become more interested in coaching—they’ve been inspired and have the knowledge.”

There is something special about these emerging hockey areas around the globe that makes coaches yearn to return, remain involved, and encourage others to do the same. The program is trying to raise awareness and spread the message that a passion for hockey exists in the least expected places, and that anyone who shares that passion can contribute to the mission of HSF.

Click to see the full feature!
Click to see the full feature!

Principally, the team encourages members of the McGill community to get involved. For Klinkhoff and Robins, maintaining the relationship with the school that shaped them and many of the founders is very important.

“It’s something that we want to keep building. It’s where we go [and went] to school, where Dan [Jacob] is now, so we want to keep that relationship strong,” Klinkhoff said.

“Everyone who has gone [overseas] to date has [gone back] at some point. That speaks to the power of this program,” Klinkhoff said.

HSF works towards a common goal, but the game’s impact reaches far beyond. Hockey instills teamwork, focus, determination—all of which translate off the ice, both socially and academically. HSF’s impact may be tangible on the ice, but its hand extends into the lives of everyone affected and involved. It truly embodies hockey in its purest form.

“We see hockey as a great physical activity, but it’s also a social program,” Robins said. “It brings people together, and it has such a positive impact down the round.”

Craig Klinkhoff is currently majoring in marketing in Continuing Studies at McGill. Matthew Robins graduated with a B.A. in 2012. Donations to Hockey Sans Frontières can be made at http://www.indiegogo.com/hsf-world-tour. Craig and Matt’s video of their Ankara trip can be viewed at http://www.hockeysansfrontieres.org/

Photos courtesy of Craig Klinkhoff.