Let the Games begin!

Next month marks the occasion of the winter sports event that will capture the hopes and dreams of athletes and fans from around the world. They will come from across the globe – China, England, Ireland, France, Switzerland, Poland, Denmark, China, Egypt, Australia and even the Cayman Islands!

No, it’s not that other event called the Winter Olympics, but the 2006 World Pond Hockey Championships being held in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, Canada from February 16th-19th.

The Cayman Breakaway, the four-man Caymanian ice hockey team of Marty ‘Freight Train’ Goschl, Norm Klein, Bill Messer and Joe Stasiuk, have already begun their intensive on-ice training in Tampa, Florida thanks to support from the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism and Cayman Airways. In fact, the players began their intensive aerobic off-ice preparation just after the summer of 2005. Captain Bill Messer commented, ‘We are determined to make it to the playoff round of 32 teams this year. Last year, in our first year, we were one win away from making it to the playoffs, and that one game was decided by one goal.’

Making the round of 32 teams will not be a simple mission this year. The tournament grew from 96 teams in 2005 to 120 teams this year, and many of those teams will be comprised of significantly higher talent levels. Two of the teams will feature past NHL notables – Pat Lafontaine, previously of the New York Islanders, will be leading one team while Dave ‘The Hammer’ Schultz from the famed Broad Street Bullies (a.k.a. Philadelphia Flyers) will also be playing.

To check on the conditioning of the Cayman Breakaway team and update them on this year’s tournament, a tournament organizer, Wayne Bennett, traveled to Grand Cayman this week from Plaster Rock. Wayne was actually here with his wife Judy, compliments of the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC). RBC is a major sponsor of the World Pond Hockey Championships and many of their employees are volunteers at the tournament.

Mr. Bennett noted that the ‘wonderful winter weather will again welcome the players to Plaster Rock.’ Last year the teams played during the day in sunny but windy conditions, and under the lights and through a snow shower at night. Temperatures went as low as minus 48 degrees F with the wind chill. Mr. Bennett remarked that ‘current temperatures are around 0 degrees F (without the wind chill) and with a couple of feet of snow on the ground. Lake Roulstone, site of the tournament, already is 18 inches thick with ice and will be in excellent shape come tournament time.’

The Cayman Breakaway players and the Bennetts exchanged gift bags, a long-held hockey tradition between visitors. Amongst other items, Mr. Bennett brought with him the official 2006 World Pond Hockey calendar and the recently released DVD’s from the prior years tournaments. Both the 2006 calendar and the 2005 DVD prominently feature the Cayman Breakaway. In return, the Cayman Breakaway provided Wayne and Judy with a number of Cayman Islands souvenirs provided by the Department of Tourism.

Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, is a small lumber mill town with a population of 1,000. The town conceived and organized the tourney as an opportunity to raise funds to build an indoor ice arena primarily for the children of the community. The town whole-heartedly supports the event with a total volunteer staff of 200!

Last year, Plaster Rock and the tournament was the host site of the TSN’s (Canada’s national sports network) day long broadcast of hockey events across Canada. All the major US and Canadian networks, including ABC, NBC and ESPN, also sent crews to cover the event, especially as the NHL was on-strike during the 2005 season. This year, the event is being held from Feb. 16-19. The NHL officially suspends play this year from February 13-27 to allow players to attend and participate in the Winter Olympic Games. With the men’s ice hockey playoffs not beginning until February 22nd, there will again be intensive media coverage of this popular event.