Nine years ago I was at a very difficult crossroads in my hockey career. I was coming out of the NCAA with hopes of making my mark on the hockey world. Over the summer I had signed with a team in the Buffalo Sabres minor league system and was that much closer to reaching the ultimate dream. After a disappointing camp and some immigration issues, I ended up in a country I had never heard of, playing pro hockey for a team that didn’t even have matching equipment.
I was lost. This wasn’t supposed to be how the story goes. I’m supposed to be working my way up through the system to my NHL dream. My roommate (Also a Canadian Import) just broke his skate blade, corralling an errant pass, and they welded it back together for chrissakes! What am I doing here?
Frustrated and angry about my situation, I tried to take it out on everyone. I was reckless and basically acting like a total jerk. In the fifth game of the season, we played against a team from Novi Sad, Serbia (HK Vojvodina). They had four Canadian import players on their team and were our strongest rival. All game I was running around like an idiot, trying to hurt people and screaming at every player on their team. During one of the breaks between whistles, one of Vojvodina’s Canadian Import players leaned over and said, “Hey, I’m Freddy. Have you tried honey rakia yet?”
I just looked at him and said, “Huh?”
Freddy replied, “Ya man, honey rakia. It’s unreal. What are you guys doing after the game? You and your buddy should stick around for the night and stay with us. I know a great little pub that serves the best honey rakia.”
Just like that, I realized something extremely important. It hit me like a truck. Why was I so angry? I was playing professional hockey, getting a chance to travel to unique and interesting countries and experience some amazing cultures. Why was I wasting this opportunity, wallowing in the fact that I wasn’t going to make the NHL? I was so consumed with a sales pitch that had defined my entire life: NHL or bust. I was allowing it to consume me, hindering me from developing as a human being.
That was the day I met Fred Perowne.
Q & A with Hockey Sans Frontieres (Hockey Without Borders) Director, Fred Perowne:
Q: How did HSF come about?
Like a lot of ideas, it was first talked about over a few beers in Novi Sad. The original idea was a way for Dan Jacob, Marc Fournier, Jonathan Gauthier and I to keep our minds active in the middle of the long season. As Dan says, “Being a professional athlete is boring!” And it is. The daily routine leaves much to be desired. The next season Murray Cobb and Paul Faucette joined us in Serbia and the project began to take off. Murray had a masters degree in social work from McGill University and Paul had a masters degree in humanitarian studies. Both guys are hockey nuts and both were instrumental in forming HSF. Over time people have circled around the idea and given it energy.
Q: Growing up, what did hockey mean to you?
I was born in a small town in Quebec where hockey was everywhere! In Quebec, like in many Canadian regions, it’s a religion. Les Bleu, blancs et rouge! The long cold winters are met with short bursts of action out on the ponds and outdoor rinks. Quebec towns and cities to this day, do such a great job maintaining the ice for all to play. My family moved to the prairies – and again – hockey was everywhere. The back alleys in Winnipeg are full of ball hockey come summer. There are few cars and lots of kids. This is a great formula for endless ball hockey games. When the winter winds start to howl we all moved on the backyard rink that my dad would prepare. A real classic scene. Hockey was family, community, friends and fun.
Q: Did your feelings or views about hockey change? If so, when did this happen? What were the circumstances?
Where I am at now, my feelings are back to the core values of family, community, friends and fun. Somewhere in between, the focus changed. There was a long period where hockey was more about an end goal and less about enjoying the moment and having fun. There was a lot of pressure during this period of time. For me it was AAA minor hockey, then on to U.S. prep school, NCAA and then pro hockey in Europe. At the end of my third season in Europe, I had had enough. I was tired physically and mentally. I was at a standstill. It was at that time I decided to go back to school and get another degree. I wanted to exercise the mind, so to speak. I followed this path with hopes of gaining some understanding after living and traveling in post-conflict Yugoslavia. It was a gold medal educational program and a perfect change of pace. Training on the ice and in the gym was replaced by reading and writing in the library. I did not even look at my hockey equipment for two years. When I finished the course work, the phone rang from HK Vojvodina. It was with a different perspective that I returned to Serbia to play and coach and enjoy the life & times in the Balkans. Some seasons later, Dan, Marc and I got our citizenship played for the Serbian National team. We ended up winning a gold medal at the Division II World Championships. It was a special time; a time that led us to enable others to have a meaningful cross-cultural experience. HSF is that bridge for us to give back to those communities that gave so much to us.
Q: You have traveled the world growing HSF. Is there a powerful moment that sticks out in your mind the most about the whole experience?
There are bunch of powerful moments that stick out. Living in the Balkans in particular and travelling in general brings an understanding about living in the moment. In the west this concept can sometimes be lost on us amid the hustle and bustle. Staying in the moment slows things down to allow for small but precious moments to stick out. For instance, this past winter in India, a young kid in a Shyok village crafted a homemade stick with his dad because he heard some coaches were coming to run a hockey clinic. It was amazing! The photo of that kid is now on the wall in Marc Fournier’s office (Who works as a regional sales representative for Bauer). Marc works with all the top pros, so you can imagine the hi-tech sticks he is dealing with. It is a good reminder of the world we live in. Everyone is not too far away from each other for the first time in human history. We live in an exciting and important time. Having people connect and share ideas and experiences is more important than ever.
Q: Tell us about your team at HSF. What is the makeup of your staff?
HSF is a volunteer organization which partners with local clubs to help create healthy hockey communities. We are at a point now that the idea of HSF is a valid one. 22 coaches have volunteered in non-traditional hockey communities primarily in the Balkans. We are now engaged in a process of formalizing the organization here in Canada. Thankfully good people are coming to us with important knowledge and experience because they believe in what HSF stands for. They see the important place sport has in children’s lives and have also value the opportunity to change the focus in youth sports in order to develop great kids and better citizens.
Q: What is your future vision for HSF?
We have had another great year. Last winter 8 HSF coaches were in the Balkans. Also, HSF volunteer coaches visited Mexico City and three small villages in Northern India. So the sky is the limit. We were skating at 13,500 feet last winter, in the Himalayas. My vision for HSF is that more and more connections and cooperation takes place between people. It is about bringing people together to share ideas and experiences. With that sharing, it will bring a million possibilities and opportunities. This is the exciting part of it all.
Q: What is the message you want to send to kids coming through hockey today?
Hockey is so much more than just a game. The end of the journey is rarely about winning the Stanley Cup or Olympic Gold. Of greater importance is the fact that every day you can achieve small victories that, one day, amount to a wonderful life with hockey being a big part of it. That said, hockey is a part of you, not all of you. Use it to meet new people, make new friends, keep in shape and have a laugh. It’s all about the journey, not the destination.
What is “Hockey Without Borders?”
Hockey Without Borders is a registered non-profit organization established to affect positive change in the lives of children and youth by using the values of hockey to promote health, development and peace. We believe that sport can foster health, integration, volunteerism, leadership and cooperation which are essential to the well-being and development of children and communities.
How it works?
We develop our partnerships by creating personal relationships with local organizations in the host community. We travel to those communities to meet everyone involved and determine if it would be a suitable arrangement for our coaches. Then, our team actively recruits young, qualified volunteer coaches for the available positions.
Why Hockey Without Borders?
Our approach is unique in that it is hands on. Instead of sending equipment or money, we focus on sending coaches abroad to live and volunteer in the community where they organize grassroots initiatives, and engage in local clinics. They become community leaders, mentors and friends to the participants in the local program. We believe that in the long run, this will have a much more profound impact.
More than hockey
Although our primary focus is placing qualified volunteer coaches to help support and develop local programs, we are constantly looking for ways to enhance the value and impact of our program. One way we do this is by building relationships which in turn help break down barriers.
For example, our coaches organize exchanges between the players from Serbia and Bosnia for weekend tournaments. We hosted six of our friends from Subotica, Serbia in Montreal for a hockey camp where they lived with local Serbian families, met Novak Djokovic, toured the city and made many friends. This initiative emphasized the notion that this program is about more than just hockey.
For my information on this amazing organization check out: http://www.hockeywithoutborders.org/
Follow Hockey Without Borders on Twitter: @HSF_HWB