As the old saying goes, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Or in the case of a hockey friendship that has spanned more than three decades, “when life throws you a snowstorm, make a snowman.”
That is exactly what happened 32 years ago in the Village of Embro, Ontario when youth teams from Ohio’s Tri-County Youth Hockey organization (then called Kent youth hockey) found themselves stranded north of the border after a tournament.
With no hotels available to house the snowbound families, local citizens opened their homes and their hearts, thus creating friendships that have grown from one generation to the next.
Today, a second generation of players and parents keep that goodwill alive with the Embro/Tri-County Hockey Exchange. This past March it was the Americans’ turn to play host to their neighbors to the north.
Over the course of a long weekend, visiting players billet in the home of host players their same age level. From these billeting experiences, life-long friendships have developed along with a new appreciation for a different culture.
Considering that Embro is a farming community and the Tri-County kids come from suburban Akron, Ohio, the weekend retreat provides both sides with an opportunity to learn about lives that may seem so far away.
“It was interesting to see how my sons adapted to the day-to-day life on a farm. They would get up early in the morning and help do chores like feeding chickens and milking cows before they could go play hockey,” says Lynne Fisher, a hockey mom of three boys involved in the program.
“The weekend is all about spending time with billet families. Kids find out very quickly how much they have in common despite the fact that their lives are so different.”
Hockey makes up only a small part of the weekend. Teams, ranging in ages from Mites through Bantams, play a series of three games during the Friendship Tournament. Toward the end of the weekend players swap jerseys and play with a new set of teammates. The mix of the American and Canadian players on teams has always been one of the highlights for the players as they eagerly volunteer to be “sent packing” to the opposing team.
With three decades of history behind this event, second generation players are appearing on the ice.
Scott Eaton, an ice arena manager in Embro, participated in the event more than 20 years ago as a player and now his son, Chaz, is taking part in the exchange.
“I am very proud that my son and I can share this experience,” Eaton says.
For the Tri-County Cyclones, Ben Barlow, the coach at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Kent, Ohio and a former Tri-County coach, also experienced the exchange weekend as a youth player, stating, “this is a phenomenal event for kids to experience.”
Incidentally, Barlow scored the overtime winner in this year’s hotly contested coaches’ game.
“The coaches’ game gets very competitive,” says Fisher. “There’s a lot of talking back and forth between the two teams, but it’s all in good fun.”
The final event of the weekend is steeped in tradition. All participating teams parade onto the ice led by a bagpipe player and skaters holding flags of the two countries mounted on hockey sticks. Representative families of Embro and Tri-County sing the national anthems, and a gift exchange closes out the weekend.
Finally, after parking lot good byes, players begin the long journey home, already planning for next year and maybe even hoping for a little snow to extend the weekend.
“We call it an exchange program but it’s really a friendship tournament,” says Mo Marsinek, whose son, Michael, participated in the program for seven years.
“It’s fun, friendly competition, which is what we need to get back to.”