By Ashleigh Viveiros
For the Garden Valley Collegiate Zodiacs hockey team, it was so much more than just another hockey tournament.
It was also a huge learning experience off the ice.
The boys' hockey team spent six days in Washington D.C. a few weeks ago to compete in the Gonzaga Purple Puck tournament, and though word of their athletic achievements has made the rounds - they posted a tie and four wins to become the first non-American team to both compete in and win the championship - coach Brendan Neufeld says the trip was always about more than just putting stick to ice.
"It was an amazing opportunity to get on a plane and go somewhere different," he said. "There's just so many experiences you don't get to have staying home and going to local tournaments."
"It was such an eye-opener for the boys," Neufeld said.
The experience started last fall, when the students spent several weeks fundraising for the trip.
The team hit the streets, selling gift cards, calendars, and offering to do yard work to cover at least half of the $1,500 per player cost of the adventure, with the rest coming out of the students' pockets.
"They worked really hard at that," Neufeld said. "And the community really supported us."
But paying for the trip was only half the battle - just getting on a plane amidst a region-wide snowstorm on Dec. 26 proved a challenge unto itself, Neufeld said.
Highways were closed, planes were grounded, and the team - when they finally did manage to drive to Fargo - faced delays and missed flights, eventually having to overnight it in Chicago before flying out to Washington in three separate flights, arriving at their destination one day late.
Still, even that proved a growth opportunity for the boys, some of whom had never flown before, Neufeld said.
"It was impressive to see how the guys handled themselves through the five or six hours of not getting on a plane," he said.
The fun stuff really got underway as soon as the boys were all together again in Washington on Dec. 27.
They were greeted by Washington Capitals forward and Winkler native Eric Fehr, who gave his fellow Winklerites a behind-the-scenes tour of his NHL team.
The Zodiacs got the chance to tour the Capitals' practice facility and dressing rooms, and to enjoy third-row seats for the Capitals versus Carolina Hurricanes game (with all 24 members of the team donning Eric Fehr jerseys to cheer the former Zodiac on - attracting the attention of the rink's JumboTron).
After the game, Fehr introduced the young hockey players to NHL stars Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin.
"That was unbelievable," said Zodiac captain Dale Harder, who noted the guys were able to get autographs from both Backstrom and Fehr and to pose for a team photo with Ovechkin.
"The guys were in awe," Neufeld said of the meet and greet. "When we met Ovechkin, especially, a lot of the guys were just blown away."
"It was a highlight of the week for many of them."
Checking out the sights
Hockey aside, the team also got the chance to tour several Washington sights, and to greet a famous former Manitoban.
"Gary Doer gave us a tour of the Canadian Embassy," Neufeld said, noting the former Manitoba premier turned Canadian ambassador was thrilled to see some fellow Manitobans so far from home.
The kids also toured the U.S. Capitol Building and the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and stopped by for looks at the Washington Monument and the White House.
"Seeing the White House was awesome," said defenceman Chad Unrau, who noted it was interesting to see the high security level at all the public buildings.
"It was neat to see hockey-type players taking a real interest in all these historical places," noted Neufeld. "We were so fortunate to have this opportunity."
A bonding experience
Having been back home now for a few weeks, things have long returned to normal for the Zodiacs, currently ranked number two in Zone IV high school hockey.
But, spending that week together away from home really helped the boys bond as teammates, Neufeld said.
"It was really neat to see these guys in a different situation ... we saw some real leadership developing among the team," he said. "Being there, having so many unique experiences really pulled the guys together."
Neufeld hopes similar trips will become a more regular thing for future Zodiac hockey teams.