The powerful sun bore down on me as I made my way up the dune. Soft sand filled my shoes as I took a moment to glance at the vast expanse of the Namibian Desert that stretched as far as the eye could see. The recently risen sun momentarily painted the horizon like a canvas of the most brilliant colors a person could imagine. In moments like that, it’s hard not to reflect on the beauty and virtue of the world.
As I soaked in the scene in front of me, my mind drifted to the world of sports, specifically hockey and how my love for the game had lead me here, of all places. Moments like that are constant reminders of why the world of athletics is so amazing; it opens the door for so many experiences and life lessons. That is a fact that I am consistently learning, even today.
My love for sports began on the frozen ponds near my home in north Minneapolis. There, I experienced the game in its purest state and instantly became obsessed with anything and everything related to hockey. As I got older, that obsession grew to include all sports. As an avid follower of the Justice League and other superhero shows, I connected Minnesota sport stars of that time to my favorite heroes; Kevin Garnett was the Hulk, Randy Moss was the Flash and Torii Hunter was Superman.
Growing up, my interest in sports stayed the same but hockey was the only one I really had any success with in terms of playing. I played three years of varsity hockey, was a captain my last two years, and made some great memories along the way. When it was all said and done however, I didn’t want to be finished playing. That’s when my dad, who had played one year of professional hockey in Norway, came to me with an offer to go abroad and play hockey for a year.
This is when my story became truly unique.
Waking up in on the other side of the world for the first time was a surreal feeling. I began classes at a Folkehøgskole or Folk High School – which is a type of gap year program that Scandinavian students use as a way to delve into a line of study they might not otherwise have the opportunity to examine – along with practicing for the semi-pro team that played nearby. From the moment I woke up that first morning, everything was a blur and everything was sports related. I was either at the rink skating or working out, with my class playing soccer, or discussing the global impact of sports or sleeping; that was my entire schedule.
Looking back, it was a pretty ideal way to live, but culture shock still hit me like a ton of bricks. Adjusting to a new language, a new culture and a crazy new schedule was not an easy way to live on my own for the first time. It was at this point that the bonds I made through athletics really took hold with two distinct groups of people, the first being my hockey teammates and the other my classmates at school.
My teammates were an odd bunch with a wide range of personalities. Since we were on a semi-pro team, there were guys anywhere from 17 to mid 30’s on the roster. Our oldest player was a recent father who had played against Evgeni Malkin in U18 tournaments when he was younger. That made for a very intimidating situation to walk into as a guy who spoke no Norwegian. Scandinavians are generally more private and aren’t as outgoing as Americans are at first, which only added to how hard the first few weeks abroad were. It wasn’t until we started playing games that they started to embrace me as a teammate. People are always saying how sports bring people together and that was really the first time that was shown to me. These men from all walks of life brought me into their family just because I played the same game they did. Adjusting to a new culture was hard, but it would’ve been much more difficult without those guys helping me out.
When I wasn’t practicing or playing games all over Norway (sometimes even venturing above the Arctic Circle) I was experiencing similar difficultly adjusting to life at my school, Solborg. My class, called Global United, focused most heavily on how soccer brought people together. Now I knew almost nothing about soccer, pretty common to most Americans, but by the time I left Norway it was clear to me that it is the world’s game.
Over the course of the year, we played local teams, learned the history of the game and took our knowledge to such places as London and Africa. In every corner of the world we saw there was love for the game. We walked on the field at the English National Team’s Wembley Stadium, and played a team in an African village where the grass came up to my knees; both instances showed people coming together over a ball and two nets, a level of accessibility that other sports just can’t match. My class did a lot of other things other than playing the game, such as hiking up dunes or racing around the London underground but the universality of soccer, sorry, football, I experienced stands out as a highlight.
There are a lot of words I would use to describe my experiences abroad, but its important to remember that glamorous wasn’t one of them. My teams always traveled by bus; sometimes we were fed fast-food as pre-game meals, and no rink that we played on fit more than one thousand people. Even in Africa we traveled everywhere by bus or bicycle, played soccer on all-dirt or tall grass fields, and slept in tiny hostiles filled with as many travelers as a place could hold. Looking back though, none of that really mattered, it actually added to the adventure. The teammates I played with and the people I traveled with weren’t there for free stuff or a vacation. They were there for the love of the game, whether it be hockey or soccer. When I talk about the world of athletics, the desire to explore needs to outweigh the desire for comfort to really have a great experience. Adventures won’t always be pretty, but if you love sports, they will always be worth your time.
After returning from Norway, I quickly decided I wanted to play my final year of junior hockey eligibility and ended up on a team in Whitefish, Montana, a tiny ski town near the northwest border of Canada. I had a lot of great memories from my time there too, but it more than anything reinforced what I had learned in Norway. My teammates came from all over the world and we all bonded over our love of hockey. What sticks out most from playing junior hockey is how you learn to live on your own so well, that’s a skill I especially appreciated when I started school. In terms of college, I chose to stay close to home after two years living far away and attempted to play for a Division III team. Having not been seriously recruited by anybody during my playing days. I didn’t really know what to expect in terms of tryouts. Unfortunately, I found myself on one of the other hard universal truths of the world of sports, the fact that one day everyone has to face the end of their playing days.
At the end of the day, I think back to that hike up the sand dune and I’m thankful that hockey brought me there and so many other places. While it’s still hard to process not playing hockey at the level I want, there are more important messages that I hope people take from my story. The most important message is what the world of sports holds in terms of opportunity for anyone with a passion for it. The world allowed me to see and experience things I’d never imagined doing in my lifetime and connect with people vastly different than myself. Whether it was an arena north of the Arctic Circle, or a small soccer field surrounded by African desert, when people step onto a playing field, they are instantly connected; that’s what the world of sports is about at its core.
So I pass this advice on to anyone who wonders what that world could offer them, explore any and every opportunity you are presented and don’t be afraid to take a chance on a great journey. I wasn’t an amazing player by any means but I was able to make some amazing memories.
This isn’t my farewell to the game, but as it is now a different part of my life, I wanted to say thank you to hockey, and to all sports, for making me the more adventurous, worldly person I am today. I couldn’t have done it without you.