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Creative squad selection gets Jamaica National Team to Eagle River

02/27/2014, 4:30pm CST
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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“Physical fitness is something we should all be thinking about as we get older,” says Jensen, a longtime certified USA Hockey coach/official. “There’s no better activity than hockey to stay in shape.”

Dr. Michael Stuart, chief medical officer for USA Hockey, says the positives of playing hockey are contagious.

“Participation in ice hockey provides all the benefits of exercise while building friendships and ensuring a fun time,” says Stuart, who is also the vice-chair of Orthopedic Surgery and the co-director of the Sports Medicine Center at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Dr. Stuart and colleague Dr. Edward Laskowski of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center sketch out specific benefits for hockey players:

  • Prevents excess weight gain and/or maintain weight loss.
  • Boosts high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good” cholesterol, and decreases unhealthy triglycerides, a cominbination that lowers your risk of cardiovascular diseases.
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  • Relieves stress by helping you have fun and unwind, connect with friends and family, and be part of a team.
  • Involves physical activity that can help you fall asleep faster and deepen your sleep.

“Playing adult hockey is a great way to feel better, gain health benefits and have fun,” says Stuart, who also emphasizes maintaining a balanced diet. As for safety concerns, he adds: “The risk of injury is small in no-check, adult hockey games, but players should wear high-quality, well-fitting equipment, including a helmet and facial protection.”

The Minnesota-based Adult Hockey Association is starting to see employers embrace hockey as a health and performance benefit for its workforce. Some businesses are beginning to subsidize hockey registration fees for employees because they feel the activity fits the policy of their wellness programs.

“It’s not a lot, but we’re starting to see more and more trickle in,” says Dave Swenson, the AHA’s secretary treasurer who also serves on USA Hockey’s Adult Council and Minnesota Hockey’s Board of Directors.

Swenson wants this trend to continue growing, not just to see the number of players rise, but to reward players for committing to a healthy lifestyle.

“I’m hoping employers think about that a little more,” Swenson adds. “It’s not just softball leagues anymore. There are recreational hockey opportunities out there for adults.”

Hilary McNeish, a longtime player, ambassador, and current executive director of the Women’s Association of Colorado Hockey, says she sees the positive results in women’s hockey every day.

“There are so many benefits,” says McNeish, “but the quote I hear most from ladies is: ‘It’s like working out a lot, but it’s so fun, it doesn’t feel like working out!’”

Aside from the physical health gains, there’s also a mental side to the story that’s special to hockey players.

“There are so many positive experiences that come with it,” adds McNeish. “Being able to play a sport that so many deem difficult is also great for the mind and wonderful for your personal attitude.

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