Preparing for the 2017 Ball Hockey Championships

Eileen Meslar takes us behind the scenes at Team USA’s most recent ball hockey training camp tournament to prepare for Worlds in Pardubice.

The USA national team is currently at the 2017 Ball Hockey Championships in Pardubice, Czech Republic, competing with five other teams for the ultimate international ball hockey prize. Eileen Meslar, a photographer and TIG contributor, wrote a blog about the team’s most recent training camp in Boston ahead of the tournament.

Wow, THAT was fun. I came back from Boston a few weeks ago after my last USA ball hockey training camp, and I can honestly say I didn’t want to leave (and I think that goes for most members of my team). The great part about this camp was that it happened a month before we leave for the World Championships in the Czech Republic. So we don’t have to miss each other too long.

We all arrived at the rink at 8 am. This was the first time our whole team was together at one camp. Two new players were recently added as well, so many of us hadn’t even met them until Saturday morning. Now a complete team, we were ready to go to work for the last time before the big show.

This camp was a little different from our previous ones; it was part of a larger United Women’s Ball Hockey Foundation tournament. Our USA team was split into 2 smaller teams with a few additional local players. That way lines could gel together while still allowing us all a fair bit of playing time. In addition to the time we would play as two individual teams in the tournament, we also had some rink time just for our USA team to practice as a whole. It was a good thing, too, considering this was the last time the USA team would practice together on American soil before Worlds.

After we all hugged it out, we went into our locker room for the weekend to find all new USA apparel and our uniforms (equipment bag, hat, jerseys, shorts, etc.). It’s a pretty cool feeling to see the uniform you’re going to wear at the World Championships. Immediately what we’ve been working so hard towards for months became a reality. It was also a thrill to see all my teammates put on their uniforms; especially those teammates who are new to the USA team this year.

After putting on our uniforms we followed our teammate Nikki (defacto trainer for our team) to the turf field next to the ball hockey rink to warm up before our coaches went over the plan for the weekend. Our head coach, Gwen, was not able to attend because she was participating in her own hockey competition over the weekend, but coaches Dorene and Jason had us covered. After our talk, we headed to our locker room to put on our equipment.

Once we got out onto the rink, we did our pre-game warm-up on the floor, tweaked a few things, and our coaches called us in. Dorene wanted us to come out as if we were stepping onto the rink in Pardubice, Czech Republic, for our first game of the World Championships. Considering some of us came out with our helmets half-on and carrying our gloves (me), etc., she definitely had a point. Since this was the last time we would be on the rink as a full team before we set foot in Europe, we had to perfect our entrance. So, with our pre-game warm-up solidified, we headed off the rink, got in jersey number order for good measure, and tried again; this time more put together and with quite a bit more enthusiasm. We looked a lot better and our warm-up went more smoothly. After the coaches went over a few drills with us, we split up (half of us were wearing our blue jerseys, half our white), and worked on some fine-tuning.

After an hour of floor time, we got off the rink to allow the tournament to continue. We changed out of our uniforms and headed back to the turf field to have a meeting with our general manager and program coordinator. As we went through details about our trip (meal plans, transportation, hotel, passports), it all became a reality.

The tournament was a month away. That happened fast. After being on the previous team and remembering how long it seemed to take to finally get to the tournament, this year’s World’s has taken me by surprise. I’ve been preparing, sure, but the fact our team will be on the world stage in a few short weeks began to sink in at this point.

Once we were done going over the finer details of our trip, we dispersed. The “Tito's: Score Responsibly” team (our orange-clad teammates) went to go prepare for their game in a half hour, while my team, the green-shirted “Breakaway Speed,” went into the stands to cheer them on.

My team began to get ready in our locker room after watching most of Tito’s game. As we were putting our equipment on, we realized our goalie had an amazing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles themed helmet. Since we were wearing green, someone said that we should be the turtles. So when we were ready to do our team cheer before our game, we counted off, “1, 2, 3, Turtle Power!” It was pretty epic. Thus, for the rest of the weekend, we became the TURTLES. We played well together, and won our first game. And then the other team played another game and won. And then we played and won.

This whole time as I’m watching the other USA team and our own team play with each other, I’m witnessing our team coming together. Our breakouts were clean, our passes were crisp, and we looked good. After watching both teams play a few games I breathed a sigh of relief; we actually looked like a team. I had been worried. It’s hard to train with your teammates for only a few weekends prior to an international tournament. But with what little time we had together, we must have made it work because, man, we were flying. Watching the other USA team play, I was getting more and more excited for Worlds. “If we play like this then we’ll be in good shape,” I decided.

After both teams had played two of their tournament games, there was some time set aside to play hockey with young female prospect players, one of those players being our teammate Erica’s daughter.

There weren’t too many kids, so a few of us passed with them and showed them some stick handling moves. A stick handling obstacle course was set up, some foam targets in one net, and a speed gun in the other. We all took turns to see if we could hit all the targets or measure how fast our slap shots were.

After we were done having fun with the girls, we had about a half hour to get ready for our game against each other.

Though we were playing against our teammates, we had to make sure we still played competitively. I think in some ways, playing against each other pushed us to play even harder. In between whistles we would joke a little bit with our opponents (USA teammates), though. Having to play against my USA teammates made me realize just how tough as opponents we were going to be. I would get out there on defense, look at the offensive line I was facing, and think, “Oh my God, they’re all on the same line…? That’s insane.” I’m used to playing against many of my USA teammates on their various club teams in tournaments throughout the year, so I know how challenging it is to play against them. I watch out for them when I play their teams, but to have all of those talented players on one line was incredible.

After a hard fought battle, the Tito’s team came out on top and beat our Turtles by one goal. The final score was 1-0, also cementing the fact that our goaltending is pretty awesome as well. We headed to our locker room after our game, and packed up our equipment. We were done for the day, and it was time for our team dinner and headshots at the hotel.

We had to hustle to get to the hotel and showered off before our headshots. I had even less time because I was the photographer taking the headshots. Once I got ready, I headed down to see where we should hang the flag everyone would pose in front of. After finding a suitable spot and taking some test shots, I began taking photos of every member of my team, taking standard headshots and then fun or silly shots, depending on the player, for our social media countdown. And I have to say, some of my teammates were quite amusing when it came to the fun shots- we definitely have some social media gold to mine.

Finished with the photos, we pushed some tables together and sat down for dinner at 3 bigger tables. We were all goofing around and having a blast. Some people were trading seats and visiting other tables. And most of us were laughing our heads off at one point or another. On a dare, Amber, of course, put some garnish or something in her mouth, which was recorded for posterity on someone’s phone.

We were having some in-depth conversations and having so much fun that we started thinking about wanting to have a reunion after the tournament. The tournament hadn’t even happened yet, but we started talking about all meeting somewhere after we came back from Europe to just have a fun weekend. That’s when I knew our team had bonded. We hadn’t even played the tournament we were all brought together for, and we were already talking about how we should hang out after it was over.

Hoping for us to do a little more team bonding, Dorene called us all over to the foyer next to the tables. At dinner, she had come around asking for things we might say to each other on the rink when we’re calling for a pass or making a play. She had written them all down on slips of paper. We split into our 2 tournament teams and faced away from each other. Dorene came around and had us read off a teammate’s phrase. The catch was, the player who actually said that phrase in a game scenario was not the one reading it. The other team facing away from us had to not only guess whose voice was saying the phrase, but also who would normally say that on the rink. Let’s just say the Turtles were not able to identify as many teammates as Tito’s. But our reasoning was the Tito’s team was just way too quiet, and we were all loudmouths apparently. We were laughing and (possibly) yelling so much that a hotel manager had to come over and tell us to quiet down, “You’re scaring the guests that are checking in.” So after guessing a couple more phrases, we gathered together in a huddle to do our team USA chant in a whisper yell.

The next morning we had semis, the Turtles played first, and we won a close game. Afterward the Tito’s team went on to win their game as well. So for the tournament championship in the Women’s A Division, our teams played each other, which we had hoped would happen. Before our final, our whole USA team met with our coaches on the turf to go over our game plan, which was the same for both teams. We all sat together listening to our coaches, and I felt the gravity of the moment. This was the last time we’d play together as a team before we went to Europe.

I think we played our best in that final game. We might have been a little tired, but as far as working together as a team, we nailed it. With each and every game we played that weekend I got more and more excited for the Czech Republic. We played our hearts out and had a great time. It was extremely competitive, but I would have expected nothing less from the badass women I call teammates. After amazing goaltending and a tough battle, we were tied 0-0 at the sound of the buzzer. I think normally by the tournament rules we should have gone into overtime and played a sudden death period. BUT because both of our teams were exhausted, and we were playing against each other, we all agreed to just do a shootout. But again, we were so evenly matched that each team had to go through almost every player before a team scored. Finally, after long last, one of the defenseman on Tito’s, Kayla McCuean, scored on a quick top shelf shot.

After our game ended, we took off our equipment and headed over to the turf field for one final meeting as a team. When our coach Jason and one of our goalies, Alessandra, who ran the tournament, began presenting awards to Tito’s, the winning team, I was caught off-guard. I completely forgot that we were playing in this larger tournament and that my team lost the championship. It sounds cliché, but after the last game I kind of felt like we all had won. I think I was so invested in watching our USA team play together and progress during that game that I forgot it was a championship.

After the tournament presentation, we talked about last minute details about our trip and posed for a combined team photo in our green and orange shirts. Tiff, one of our captains, called us in to do one more team cheer before we left the rink. We were going to say 1, 2, 3, USA or something similar. But then it seemed fitting, after playing in a tournament where we were split into 2 teams and had to play against each other all weekend, that we should combine our two individual names to form one team. So before everyone parted ways until the Czech Republic, Tiff counted it off and we screamed, “TITO’S TURTLES!” on three.