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Creative squad selection gets Jamaica National Team to Eagle River

02/27/2014, 4:30pm MST
By Greg Bates - Special to USAHockey.com

EAGLE RIVER, Wis. -- It was about three weeks before the start of the Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships, and Kristin Heffern was one of only two players on her pond hockey team.

“We had a death; one of my player’s mom went into hospice; we had a divorce, two of the girls were partners and they won’t play with each other anymore; and then dollars, one girl ran out of money,” Heffern said.

It wasn’t looking promising for the Jamaican Official Ice National Team.

But Heffern — who had played in seven of the first eight Pond Hockey Championships — wasn’t going to miss what she dubs the best weekend each year. Plus, she had already invested $3,000 in down payments to make sure she would be in Eagle River, Wis., in early February.

Heffern needed to get five new players to fill out her roster. The San Tan Valley, Ariz., resident started using social media outlets in the hope of attracting interested players. She posted on hockey message boards in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and North Dakota, contacted rinks in the Midwest and also got in touch with Wisconsin-area teams.

“I just said, ‘Hey, we need five women over 35. I don’t care if they can skate, but hopefully they’ve played hockey,’” Heffern said.

Heffern’s perseverance paid off. She got three women from Michigan and one from St. Louis who were interested in playing. A fifth player got sick before the tournament and wasn’t able to travel to the championships.

Jabez Waalkes got a text from a fellow Michigan friend asking if she’d like to play. Waalkes had played in the Pond Hockey Championships before and loved her experience.

“I normally come up here with a different team, but I wasn’t able to this year,” Waalkes said. “At the last minute I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ I don’t know anyone on the team. I jumped in the car from Holland, Mich., met some girls in Kalamazoo, Mich., rode eight hours with two strangers. I met the rest of the strangers and we partied.”

The team members didn’t feel it was weird competing with women they’d met just hours earlier.

“I showed up in this country by myself, so to come up to pond hockey, where I know about 50 or so other people, it’s not weird,” said Waalkes, who is originally from Melbourne, Australia.

“We got in the car and we were immediately friends,” Heffern said. “We drove around, drank a few beers, came down and looked at the pond and it’s been a good time ever since.”

The Jamaican National Team, whose ages ranged from 35 to 55, competed in the Women’s Bronze 35+ Division in Eagle River and shocked everyone, including themselves, with their success. The women finished runner-up in their division, going 4-1 in the tournament. The Jamaican National Team outscored its opponents 44-25 in the first four games before losing 12-1 to the Rotten Apples in the title match.

“I figured coming in that if you put seven girls together that didn’t know each other it would have to be fun,” said Waalkes, who plays in four hockey leagues, one women’s league, co-ed and two men’s leagues, in Michigan. “If you were that anal and that scared, you wouldn’t accept the invitation.”

The Jamaican National Team — which got its name as an ode to Jamaica possibly having a men’s hockey team compete in the 2018 Olympic Winter Games — kept it loose on and off the ice all tournament. Team members wore dreadlock wigs over their helmets and sported jerseys with Jamaica’s colors green, yellow and black, along with a picture of Bob Marley on the front.

There weren’t a lot of expectations coming into the tournament from the members of the Jamaican National Team. Since they don’t know each other or each other’s tendencies on the ice, it was trial-and-error process the first couple of games.

“It’s hockey and so if people have a hockey sense, you know what to do. It’s not brain surgery,” said Heffern, who is a USA Hockey Level 5 coach and Level 2 referee. “Get out there with your stick and have some fun. Try to create a few goals and stop some pucks — it’s a good time.”

There has already been some talk amongst the team members about reuniting next year at the pond hockey championships.

“You play with the people you brought to the dance,” Heffern said. “If these six want to come back, I’m staying with these six, they’re here. They get first right of refusal.

“We did really well. We may never break up.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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If you think you’re in pretty good shape – or even if you know you’re not – it’s possible to step into, say, a touch football game or a casual softball game without completely embarrassing yourself or winding up on the couch for a week with myriad pulled muscles.

But if you want an honest assessment of your current fitness level, try jumping into a hockey game. You will get a splash of cold water – or better yet, ice shavings – on your face.

While it’s true that many adult hockey league players are perhaps primarily motivated by the camaraderie and enjoyment of the sport, the fitness benefit cannot be overlooked, says Kevin Universal, a member of USA Hockey’s Adult Hockey Council and the president of the Carolina Amateur Hockey Association.

Once you start, you don’t want to stop. But once you stop, you’ll feel it once you start again.

The beauty of hockey

A shift in hockey combines the controlled dash of a 400-meter race with the urgency of an even shorter race.

“There are perishable skills – the combination of having the short, sprinter-type lung capacity, then getting back for a quick rest and sprint up the ice over and over,” Universal said. “That’s challenging for a lot of people."

That’s why it’s important to keep playing, even if it’s just once a week. If you fall out of that routine, you will feel it.

“I think we have at least a handful of guys on my team who travel a lot and don’t have time to work out except for hockey,” Universal said. “That’s their one or two days of exercise a week, and it’s so beneficial. Aside from just hanging out and having fun, joking around with the guys, they’ll use that as a primary means of exercise.”

Other workouts don’t measure up

Unless you like to race the person next to you on the treadmill or try to beat yesterday’s distance on the bike or elliptical, there isn’t much true competition in gym exercises. That doesn’t mean you aren’t working, but you aren’t working the same way you are when you truly compete.

“Being a part of the game and having something on the line, it makes you dig a little deeper and makes you get into it more and get more benefit,” Universal said. “When you’re not doing that and just out recreationally exercising and trying to burn calories, you don’t get the benefit. I have friends that run or lift weights, but if they aren’t getting that type of hockey workout consistently, they feel it after games and you see it in their play.”

Universal notes a recent example to emphasize his point: a guy who had played on one of his teams a decade ago before moving away has just returned and started back in hockey a few weeks ago.

“He had regularly exercised at the gym, but he was so gassed the first four or five games,” Universal added. “He’s finally getting his legs back. It’s funny. He regularly works out, lifts weights competitively. It’s not the same when you have to go out and sprint.”

Never too late to start

That said, don’t let the conditioning learning curve associated with hockey be a deterrent. If you used to play and are trying to get back into it, it’s never too late. Same goes for adults who have never played before.

Universal falls into that latter category. He says he grew up playing street hockey, but he never played in an organized league on the ice until he was 34. He picked it up after his kids took up the sport and he “got the itch” when some other newbies convinced him to try a beginners camp.

“I regularly run into people as adults and I encourage them to pick up the game,” Universal said. “You don’t have to have grown up with it. You just have to have the desire, and you can have some fun out there and get fit.”

Now 48, Universal can’t imagine life without the sport in so many ways – with fitness being primary among them.

“I feel the difference. I feel the lung capacity and I’m able to work harder in other areas,” Universal said. “This past weekend I did a hike with a 1,700-foot elevation drop over 1.3 miles. That’s like doing 170 flights of stairs. My legs aren’t sore, and I attribute that so much to skating. I’ve tried lacrosse, football, track, swimming, baseball, and this is definitely by far the most beneficial workout.”

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