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Commentary: Travel hockey programs turns players into expert tourists

I’ve never seen the plains of Africa. I’ve never eaten Belgian chocolate in Johannesburg. I’ve never run with the bulls in Spain, and I’ve never made friends with the mountain goats in the Himalayas. I’ve never seen the Coliseum. I’m not king of the world.

I am, however, a connoisseur of hotel shampoos. I know the menu of a standard continental breakfast by heart. I can draw you an exact model of a Marriott suite, or a single at a Sheraton. I know the feeling of walking down that long hallway, awkwardly thumbing those card keys that never seem to work into the door, and collapsing onto a freshly made queen-size at the end of a full day.

I’m a hockey player. At Saint Francis High School, I compete in the Prep hockey program, an organization that competes in the Midwest Prep Hockey League. We travel throughout the entire winter, and during the summer and fall I play for a variety of off-season travel teams, including the AAA team affiliated with Saint Francis.

After spending my life competing in some of the top leagues around the country, I’ve become a great tourist. I’ve had the privilege to play the sport I love in some of the most breathtaking cities in the world.

I may never have spent my summer molding clay pots in Nepal, but I have felt Rocky Mountain air course through my lungs. I’ve been captivated by the smells and sounds of the Quincy Market, and I have even spent a few weekends in China … or at least the Chinatown in Montreal. I’ve gotten to play at universities all over the United States, experiencing tradition and regional culture in a way that most people can’t say they have: on skates.

It can be tough sometimes, though. There are trips that can turn south fast, and when that happens, the 72 hours that should be spent escaping from the paper and pencil banality of everyday life quickly become a trying time that would rival the hero’s journey of Odysseus, the moments filling themselves with homesickness and “get all of these guys out of my room so I can sleep.”

But there’s nothing I would trade the memories for. I’ve come to love the highs, and the lows. I’ve come to love the standard 4-foot-deep hotel pools, and the plain bagels with Smucker’s at 6 a.m. before the championship game of a lifetime (or at least a weekend). I’ve come to love finding the old room keys at the bottom of my wallet. I’ve come to love being a tourist. Not your average tourist, of course, but a tourist nonetheless.

You see, travel hockey isn’t about climbing to the top of the Himalayas; it’s not about becoming the biggest dog in the Coliseum; it’s not about trying to outrun the bulls.

While the sheer size of the talent pool in the Western New York area does send some of our friends on, their numbers are few. For most of us, it’s a one-way trip down a packed street in Nepal. We rub elbows with the merchants and the wealthy, but at the end of the day, we pack up; we come home.

Yet, thousands of Buffalo families choose to pack the bags and hitch over to the local ice rink, one of myriad in the region. Yes, many of them do it out of hope for a dream. Regardless, there’s something that playing travel hockey does to you whether you sought it out for that reason or not … it turns you into a tourist.

So, I encourage you (if you haven’t done so already) to pick up a pair of skates and take your first strides towards becoming a cultural connoisseur on ice, or at least the king (or queen) of a Sheraton in Ottawa.

Josh Thompson is a senior at Saint Francis High School.

There’s nothing I would trade the memories for. I’ve come to love the highs, and the lows.