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Growing Hockey Globally - With the Help of a Storied Rivalry

Building an international hockey event in the COVID-19 pandemic is a challenge, but the 2021 Ice Hockey Classic between Canada and USA still managed to be a success despite it.
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It doesn't really need an introduction. Canada vs. USA. Hockey. That's enough to get both nations boiling already. 

A rivalry that never disappoints, no matter who's representing the countries. Two nations in close proximity that always want to one-up each other in anything – sports, health, you name it.

And that's the basis for the Ice Hockey Classic, an annual event put on by former professional hockey player Kerry Goulet and his wife, Toni. But they put a unique twist on it: usually, it's held in Australia and New Zealand, two countries that's known more for the hockey variety played on grass than the one on ice.

In April of 2011, with the help of promoter Craig Douglas, Goulet and his team put on a sold-out show in Christchurch, Aus. between Canada and USA. Former NHL defensemen Kyle Quincey was one of the first players to commit, and the event only grew from there.

The game usually takes place in the Trans-Tasman nations, with a focus on helping to grow the games in two of the warmest climates in the world. And with over 10,000 people showing up to some of the previous events, it definitely has worked.

In normal years, the games are full of current NHLers and other pro players. Among event alumni are Brent Burns, Chris Driedger, Mike Commodore and Nathan Walker, an Australian pro whom the championship trophy is named after. Even Wayne Gretzky lent his name to the game in the past, traveling with the group to help support the event that aims to raise awareness and funds for the StopConcussions foundation that Goulet runs, in association with Brain Injury Australia and Shoot for a Cure. Former NHLers Keith and Wayne Primeau were co-founders in the venture and always are part of the classic in some form.

But the COVID-19 pandemic made going overseas impossible, especially as both countries recently shut down again. That wasn't an option, so the next best bet was playing locally just outside of Toronto in Thornhill, Ont.

But another challenge emerged. Border restrictions meant they couldn't fly in any Americans. So the organizers were forced to use Canadians in the American lineup to build a roster - not ideal, but the best they could do.

So in came an interesting blend of junior hockey players, college kids, some minor pro players and a couple of current and former NHLers in Drake Caggiula and Zenon Konopka. Heading into the game, USA – with a high number of University of Laurier and Aurora Tigers players making up the core – looked like the favorite, especially with Caggiula and Konopka in the lineup.

And heading into the third period with a 7-1 advantage in USA's favor, it definitely looked like they'd cruise to an easy win. But instead, Canada made it 8-8 to force overtime after a mega third period, but the United States would end up taking it a minute into the extra frame.

Sure, it wasn't the best contingent of players on the ice, but the game was more about the overall event itself. Thousands of people - mainly from Canada, Australia and New Zealand - tuned in to watch a game that was sidelined last year due to the pandemic. For those in Australia and New Zealand, the late-night game in Ontario kept those entertained overseas heading into lunchtime at a time where there isn't much else to do.

"We got a comment out of Beijing China saying that it was great to see the grassroots level of pro hockey," Goulet said. "Most of these kids either have an opportunity to go to college, or some of them are already there. Or some of them have the opportunity to go play pro.

"Some of the people in Australia that have been to the classic said it gave them their fix because, right now, they're shut down. There is no pro hockey there, it shut down."

Despite the challenges of putting together an international event in a pandemic, Goulet said it was still easier than usual.

"Under normal circumstances, you're dealing with flights, the logistics of taking 40 players 20 from each country and coaches and staff," Goulet said. "There's obviously logistics with hotels, the pieces, organizing opportunities for the players to experience the cultural aspects of the game."

And in other iterations of the event, Goulet and his team had to ship out materials to build the rinks once they arrived, so that made it an even bigger challenge – something that wasn't a problem in the Toronto area.

So while the tournament had a bit of a different setting last weekend, the hope is to return to Australia in 2022. To make it happen, though, the logistics are going to take a while.

"To the day that we leave, there's a year of work going into it," said Paul Rosen, a StopConcussions ambassador and the former goaltender for Canada's national Paralympics team. "I don't know how Kerry and Toni, do it. They work 26-hour days before we get down there and when we get down there."

The crowd in Australia appreciates the effort. Konopka recounted one game in Sydney with over 14,000 people, saying the crowd was as loud as he has ever heard it. And there were fights, and some players threw hits that would likely get them suspended in the NHL (Konopka, a culprit of one of the hits, jokingly called it "fake news"). 

"It's not so much about the hockey side of it, it's the cultural things that we get to do, meeting tribes from the area," said Caggiula, who was gifted a jersey from the first Australian Indigenous hockey team, the Kaurna Boomerangs. "I would say it's one of the highlights of my career because you get to meet so many different guys on these tours. We have competitive games and we have a lot of fun together."

Once the world resumes normality, for the most part, Goulet is excited about making this an annual event again - both in Canada and down under. The support of the players is there, the fans enjoy it. And now, it's all about continuing to grow the game using one of the best rivalries hockey can ever ask for.

Disclaimer: Kerry Goulet has a podcast that's supported by The Hockey News called Gouche Live.

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