When one thinks of the ideal venue for the International University Sports Federation (FISU) 2017 Winter University Games, Kazakhstan probably isn’t the hockey mecca that comes to mind. However, for McGill Redmen Hockey centre Mathieu Pompei and defenceman Nathan Chiarlitti, the opportunity to head to the Kazakh city of Almaty to represent Canadian universities was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“I was honestly just super excited,” Chiarlitti said. “It was not only a great opportunity to play with other great university players, but also represent Canada.”
Both seniors are coming to the end of their varsity hockey careers and are looking to soak in as much of these last few games as they can.
“As a fifth-year player, this is probably one of the last times I will have such a special opportunity,” Pompei said.
The two agreed the time spent at the rink with their team was a highlight of the trip. Just missing the finals after a 4-1 semi-finals loss to Russia, the team faced off against the Czech Republic in the bronze medal game on Feb. 8.
“[…There] was no way we were leaving that game without a medal after we lost to Russia,” Chiarlitti said. “Unfortunately, I had to miss the game due to injury, but it was still super fun cheering from the sidelines.”
In the bronze medal game, Team Canada jumped ahead early against the Czechs, clinching third place with a 4-3 victory.
“The feeling was pretty surreal getting the medal,” Pompei said. “We truly put our everything into this tournament […] to make sure we accomplished our goal.”
The team had just one practice, hours before heading out to Kazakhstan, the team had to bond on the fly. Chemistry formed through years of practice and games needed to be emulated in only hours. The team’s only practice was at York University before the tournament and was a crucial time for the players to mingle and become comfortable with each other.
Because the team had little-to-no time to develop relationships before leaving, they became friends by exploring the area in and around the athletic village in Almaty. Through these interactions, the team grew together and players even made friends on other teams.
“Being around a bunch of great athletes from around the world was an amazing experience,” Pompei said.
However, both Redmen were amongst the five players chosen to briefly head into the town to interact with locals.
“We actually got to go play with some of the local kids of the community at the closest ice rink,” Chiarlitti said.
Travelling through the city, both were surprised by the mayhem on the Kazakh streets.
“The driving was kinda weird,” Chiarlitti said. “There would be lines […] on the road, but people would just be driving on the lines, ignoring lanes, and making new lanes.”
Outside of the city centre, the team had lunch in the scenic Trans-Ili Alatau mountains.
“One day we did go up to the ski hills,” Chiralitti said. “It was super picturesque up in the middle of the mountains.”
Reflecting on Pompei and Chiarlitti’s two and a half weeks abroad, the gratitude for their family and friends back home was as strong as ever.
“You know, honestly I was just so excited to get home and share my medal with everyone,” said Pompei. “Being able to share this accomplishment with everyone that helped me to get where I am today is truly a special feeling.”
With the Redmen in the midst of a playoff push, the two have had to adjust quickly to the 11-hour time difference since returning back to Canada.
“I know I am going to feel it once the season is over, but physically, I feel totally ready to chase a championship,” Pompei said. “Mentally, I am as focused as ever.”
McGill takes on UQTR at home in the first game of a best two out of three OUA East Semifinals on Feb 22.