At least two Olympic hockey players have and continue to spread the beauty and excitement of the sport to the four corners of the world.
Two summers ago, Harvard junior Caitlin Cahow spent a few weeks in Kazakhstan with Athletes in Action, a Christian organization of past and present collegiate athletes, who tried to improve the lives of some female hockey players as well as poor rural peasants.
This Sunday, three-time Olympian Angela Ruggiero will leave for a two-week mission in China under the auspices of the New York Islanders’ Project Hope, which she directs for the NHL team.
“It’s exciting,” said Ruggiero who graduated from Harvard in 2004 after taking two years off to train. “This past week I had to miss a USA camp — something I’ve never missed — but we had a tournament and that’s a big part of my responsibilities,” Ruggiero said. She was directing the Project Hope Invitational, a four-day tournament from Dec. 26 to 29, which involved the Qigihar Snow Leopards, a pee wee Chinese team, and pee wee teams from Westchester, Long Island and Bridgeport, Connecticut. The tournament also drew more than 20 Chinese government and education officials to learn what the sport and the Islanders had to offer their country. The cities of Qigihar and Harbin are the main locales of the Project Hope efforts.
On the upcoming trip, Ruggiero and her assistant will visit eight primary schools in three major Chinese cities to see the state of rinks, to determine what’s needed in the way of equipment, to get to know the educational system and to help athletes with their English so that some day they may come to the U.S. during the summer for classes and hockey instructions. The two will also give clinics to the Chinese kids.
Ruggiero has been to China twice before, but only as a player with USA hockey — in 1997 for the Harbin Friendship Cup and in 2001 for exhibition games leading up to the 2002 Olympics. She has never lost a game in China but this visit has more than a score at stake.
Project Hope is the special project of Islanders President Charles B. Wang, a Chinese-American, who feels as strongly about his native country as his sport. In 2004, the Islanders opened an office in Harbin, China and during the 2004-05 season, Islanders Executive Vice President Mike Milbury visited the club’s China operations to take stock of what was needed to advance the cause of youth hockey. The next step was to enroll Chinese children (from kindergarten on up) in Islander-affiliated youth hockey programs. A requirement is that the students study English and must pass regularly-administered tests and assessments on their fluency. This way they will be prepared for study and play in the U.S. at the high school level.
Wang has a keen interest in developing hockey in China, and Ruggiero is a large piece in that puzzle. She has been working for the Islanders since September, having sent in her resume when she heard about the position. She is undecided about whether to remain in training for the 2010 Olympics but knows the job keeps her connected with the sport she loves.
It doesn’t take much for Cahow to get cranked up about her trip to Kazakhstan even though it was two and a half years ago.
“It was fantastic,” Cahow said. “It took us 150 hours to get there using every mode of transportation possible to get across the country.” She said she got an important lesson in the politics and economics of this large land (with 1.05 million square miles, the ninth largest in the world) that shares borders with Russia and China. Once part of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan declared independence in 1991 following the fall of the Communist empire.
“It’s truly a place where East meets West. Half the population is Mongolian — very poor and living in the country — while the other half are Russians who have more money and live in the cities. It’s an amazing cultural clash,” Cahow said.
Cahow’s group helped to renovate a rural church and taught and played hockey as well. Kazakhstan already had an established women’s ice hockey system and played in the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, but that distinction did not make it any easier for those still playing the sport who Cahow met on her trip.
“We befriended the players and bought them equipment,” she said. “One woman had to sneak out of her house to play hockey at night because her parents objected when she did anything that did not earn money.”
Cahow won’t be smiling at Sacha Baron Cohen’s movie, “Borat,” which pokes fun at Kazakhstan. Cahow, who has seen the real deal, doesn’t think there’s anything to laugh at.
The whole experience taught Cahow to appreciate what she has. “We tried to improve their lives,” she said. “Anyone can smile.”