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Behind the scenes at Team USA’s ball hockey training camp

Our correspondent Eileen Meslar takes you behind the scenes at Team USA’s Ball Hockey training camp.

Team USA’s ball hockey team gathered in Dracut, Massachusetts, for one of their only training camps together.
Al Saniuk

Last weekend, I was heading off to attend the second-to-last training camp for the 2017 USA Women’s Street Hockey Team. This team will be playing in the International Street and Ball Hockey Federation World Championships in Pardubice, Czech Republic.

In the likely case you don’t know what sport or world championships I am talking about, rest assured, you’re not the only one.

It’s very odd to purchase plane tickets, take off work, and train several days a week in preparation for a camp in another state for a sport you know the people sitting next to you on the plane or in the gym do not know exists. But let’s start from the beginning . . .

Street hockey or ball hockey (as far as I can tell the names are interchangeable) is a sport very similar to ice hockey. It is a game played with 6 players from each team on the rink at one time; 3 forwards, 2 defensemen, and a goalie. The biggest difference is we’re not skating on ice; we are running on a sport court surface and we use a ball rather than a puck. Some professional ice hockey players play it in the offseason to keep in shape. The sport is fairly popular in the Northeast, parts of Canada, and in Europe. Every two years the ISBHF holds the Men’s and Women’s Street Hockey World Championships in one of the participating countries. Now you’re up to speed!

Nikki Gnozzio helps Lindsey Bitler stretch out before a scrimmage.
Eileen Meslar

My team, the USA Women’s Street Hockey Team, is made up of players from several different states. Last weekend’s camp was one of the first and last times our USA team would be able to play together before our international debut. We finally knew who our team was. Now it was time to practice together and see what we could do.

Shipping up to Boston

There are only two of us from the Midwest. Most of our teammates live on the East Coast, and a majority live in or near Boston, so camp in Massachusetts made the most sense. Because my teammate and friend Danielle and I were on the 2015 team, we already knew some of our teammates. We also have the good fortune of having very gracious and generous teammates who live in the Boston area and put us up for the weekend. Once our Chicago flight landed at Logan Airport, we attempted to navigate the T (Boston’s subway) for the next leg of our trip.

At first we just stood with our bags next to us on the floor. Then the car got even more crowded; clearly it was rush hour. So we had an idea: “We’ll stack our bags on top of each other. They’ll take up so much less room!” we thought. Which they did... but it was like balancing the leaning tower of hockey bags. We just tried not to fall over while stabilizing our weird tower the rest of the ride. Once we got off the T, we followed our teammate Karen’s directions to her beautiful purple house. After lugging our bags a couple blocks, we found it! The purple house: our home for the next 48 hours.

Karen, who is always on top of things, had a plan to prepare for the weekend: Go to the gym, get in some cardio and stretching to loosen our legs and end the night with a nice dinner. At dinner we discussed our excitement and curiosity surrounding camp. We have new coaches this year, and from what I could already tell, their coaching philosophy was refreshingly different from coaches I’ve had in the past. Though I was extremely excited, I was slightly apprehensive, not knowing what to expect.

Back together again

We woke up at 6:30ish, hopped in the car about 20 minutes later, and traveled the 45 minutes to the city of Dracut as the sun began to rise over Boston. As we pulled up to the parking lot of the ball hockey rink at 7:45 am, there were a bunch of cars there already. We immediately began freaking out and started interrogating each other. “It was 8 am, right?” “I think so.” “It’s 8 am. I know it is. Right?” The previous year our camp start time had been 7 am. We calmed down a little bit once we realized there was a lacrosse practice on the turf field adjoining the rink. We all breathed a sigh of relief.

Once inside we were greeted by familiar faces. It felt like a family reunion. We had played together in a tournament in Canada a few months prior as our final tryout for the team. Everyone was hugging and catching up. Already we felt like a team.

Team USA huddles up during camp.
Al Saniuk

After our talk with the coaches and our warm-up, we stepped on the rink and began to play. We did drills that worked on various aspects of the game: our forecheck, breakouts, changing players on the fly. After just a short time, I began to feel the flow of the team. We were coming together as a unit. A few hours flew by, and we took a break to grab a snack and some water before we scrimmaged a local men’s team from that rink.

Team Bonding

Everyone felt good about the scrimmage and we were jelling pretty well. We played a full three periods and then some. After we finished and thanked the guys, we had to head our mystery team-building activity. The coaches gave us an address and told us to meet them there. We all had been guessing as to what the activity could be . . . Was is it a high ropes course? Trampoline dodge ball? An escape room? We had no idea. In our July camp/tryout we did a scavenger hunt throughout the town of Dracut, so anything was possible.

Karen, Danielle, and I arrived on the campus of a prep school, and drove until our GPS told us we reached our destination, a parking lot among a few school buildings. We found another car full of perplexed-looking teammates. Not knowing where we were going exactly or what we were supposed to be doing, we called our general manager to ask him. It turned out our surprise team-building activity was to watch our young teammate Stef play in her high school ice hockey game.

Stef had no idea we were coming.

As soon as she came onto the ice for warm-up, our whole team obnoxiously screamed her name. We continued to cheer for her and she got a hat trick!

After Stef’s successful game, our team headed to a Hibachi grill to have a team dinner. I had never been to a Hibachi grill before so needless to say it was quite the experience. Our team bonded as we practiced our hand-eye coordination skills, catching chunks of grilled zucchini in our mouths from the chef.

Amber Moore tries to catch a piece of zucchini in her mouth at the Hibachi grill.
Eileen Meslar

We recorded an endless amount of GIF-able videos and blackmailable photos of each other. I had a blast. We told the waitress of our head coach Gwen’s upcoming birthday. The waitress came out with a gong and ice cream. Gwen got the opportunity to smash the gong, and boy did she ever. After dinner many players left in a hurry to watch the Patriots playoff game, while a handful of us stayed to eat the ice cream that technically came with our meal. I was pretty jazzed about what seemed like free ice cream. With our stomachs full, the three amigos headed back to the purple house to shower up and get some rest before the next day of camp.

Training Camp: Day 2

Kelly Foley speaks to her team on the second day of camp.
Eileen Meslar

Once we got to the rink in the morning, the team gathered to have a talk before we played another game against the men’s team. The coaches asked each player to share with the team what we learned from a confidence training program that they had us do. The first few players said their piece and we all clapped for them.

Then at some point the discussion shifted and everyone started opening up a lot more. Players were not just going in front of everyone and speaking once, people were standing up even after they had presented to share their thoughts about the team. Individuals were sharing insecurities with fellow teammates, while others reassured them. We were so immersed in our discussion that we did not realize we went over the time allotted for the activity until players from the other team began showing up. We were still in our coats. Everyone got their gear on quickly and we did an abridged warm-up on the rink.

We finished another fun game with a 5-minute overtime and a shootout with all of our players.

After all was said and done, I think everyone had a great experience at camp. I felt we became closer as a team, and we all came out of the camp knowing a little more about each other and what to expect in the coming months.

It’s challenging to feel like a team when you’re miles apart and only play with each other once every few months. But I think this camp was a promising start to this thing called the USA Women’s Street Hockey Team.

Team USA gathers together for a team photo.
Al Saniuk