International flavour for Palliser hockey academy

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R.I. Baker Middle School Hockey Academy Director Bruce Bell, far right, provides some instruction to Henry (left) and Daniel Lopez-Lanchares while teacher/on-ice supervisor Jeff Smith looks on.

COALDALE – Daniel and Enrique Lopez-Lanchares are fluent in both Spanish and French. Thanks to language classes in their Mexico City school as well as after-school tutoring, the brothers also speak more than passable English.

After a few spins around the ice at the Coaldale Sportsplex, however, it’s clear they still need to gain a better grasp on the language of hockey.

“When we were in school in Mexico and learning English, they don’t teach you things about hockey,” says Daniel, the older of the two Palliser Regional Schools’ international students. “They just teach you things in general.”

Learning hockey terminology relating to the myriad of drills each practice isn’t the only challenge they face in the R.I. Baker Middle School Hockey Academy.

“Don’t fall,” offers up Enrique –who prefers to go by ‘Henry’ during his Grade 7 year at the Coaldale school.

The siblings had been ice skating three or four times a few years ago while living in Spain, but have not watched a televised game – never mind having played hockey – before arriving in Canada a few weeks ago.

“It’s something new and we want to make new things, explore things. You have hockey in Canada and we don’t,”says Daniel, pointing out improving his English in his Grade 8 year while experiencing a new culture were high atop the reasons he joined the International Student program at Palliser.

When he joined the academy a decade ago, teacher/on-ice supervisor Jeff Smith never  dreamed their numbers might include international students one day. The game is so foreign to most that none have inquired about that option.

Principal Jason Prebushewski points out the longest stay for international students at R.I. Baker previously was just three months, which makes the cost of hockey equipment somewhat prohibitive.

If visiting students are looking to immerse themselves in Canadian culture, however, Smith says hockey is a must. The middle school has made a point in the past of having its international students check out a hockey practice and perhaps even step on the ice for a moment.

“These boys are going to go home and be able to say, ‘we played hockey in Canada,’ and that’s going to be a great experience,” he says, while taking a break from helping academy director Bruce Bell put Daniel, Henry and the rest of the Grade 7-8 group through drills.

The goal of the R.I. Baker Middle School Hockey Academy is to meet the needs of every level of player, from the beginner to those playing on AAA rep teams.

Most of their less experienced players, Smith admits, have usuallyat least  played pond hockey, watched it on TV and or have a basic understanding of the game.

“They may know how to skate but they don’t know how the game play works, so some of the fundamentals are missing and that’s what we are excited to help them with,” he says of the Lopez-Lanchares brothers.

The boys are athletic – with soccer, rugby and tae kwon-do among their favourite sports back home – but they are their own harshest critics after just two hockey practices.

“The first time I think I did very bad but everybody said, like my brother, ‘not bad, but no good,’ ” says Henry, with Daniel giving himself a similar assessment. “Not so bad. But not good.”

With 54 students in the academy the practices are broken down into Grade 5-6 and Grade 7-8 to keep the numbers manageable. Those two groups, however, are not further divided into skill levels. Leadership is a big component of the program and more experienced players are expected to help those in need.

“We have some kids out here who are absolutely fantastic hockey players and we want them to work on captaincy skills,” says Smith. “What does it take to be a good teammate? How do you help the people a little less than you when it comes to skill?”

Teammates have been quick to offer their help, say the boys. Daniel’s home stay family includes a son also enrolled in the academy and he’s also provided plenty of tips while they’ve played street hockey.

Improving their skills to a point they can return home to play competitively isn’t likely, as the boys say the only hockey rink in their hometown is reserved for professionals. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a hockey bucket-list, however short.

Daniel says his ultimate goal is “to score a goal,” while Henry’s eyes light up at the prospect as well. “Me also!”

Prebushewski says Daniel and Henry aren’t the only ones who will benefit from their year of study here.

Their fellow students are exposed to another world and another culture through the personal stories the Mexican brothers will share. He believes his students will also gain a greater sense of empathy as they put themselves in the shoes of the two boys so far from home.

“A cool thing I saw the other day was a fifth grader – who is just brand new to the school and in his first week at school – went up to introduce himself to one of the boys and asked if he could show him around at recess,” says Prebushewski. “That shows huge leadership from those Grade 5s, but also that sense of empathy.”