Last weekend, two hockey programs some 310 miles apart from one another met at the Connery Skating rink in Lynn for the St. Lambert Exchange, hosted by Marblehead Youth Hockey.
The event is part of a two-leg exchange in what is the longest continuing youth hockey exchange in North America. Every year, Marblehead’s Youth Hockey programs travel to St. Lambert, Quebec in February for the first part of the exchange, then in November, St. Lambert travels all the way to the North Shore the weekend before Thanksgiving.
The tradition was started in 1967 by the mind of Marblehead Youth Hockey coach Bill Haskell, who had numerous trips up to Canada to obtain lumber for his company. After multiple trips beyond the border, the idea of bringing his team up to compete against St. Lambert sprung.
In order to move from thought to action, Haskell asked for the assistance of Donald “Bud” Orne, who is known as the “Father of Marblehead Hockey.” The two were able to get in touch with Eric Sharpe, who was about to become mayor of St. Lambert, and the dream soon became reality. The programs have been meeting twice a year ever since.
The athletes not only have a chance to compete against players from the bordering country, but they get to interact with their families for the entire weekend. In a process that President of Marblehead Youth Hockey Matt Waldman referred to as “billeting,” the families of Marblehead’s players host each of the kids from St. Lambert for the entirety of their stay. The parents of the Canadian players stay in a hotel while their kids stay at the Marblehead families’ houses. Parents are welcomed into the homes for dinner and conversation after the day’s events.
The host kids are referred to as the visiting players’ “buddies”. Waldman said it’s an incredible experience for the kids because for many of them, it’s their first time meeting.
“A lot of times, these kids have never met their buddies when they’re eight years old. They’ve never met them when they’re that young and it’s their first experience with it,” Waldman said. “They’re meeting a kid who may or may not speak any English at all, and same thing with us we don’t speak very much French.”
The age divisions of the kids involved in the programs range from Squirt (ages eight and under), all the way up to Bantam (ages 14 and under). The games started promptly at 1 p.m on Friday, and went all the way to 9 p.m that night. The games lasted one hour each, and after the conclusion of each match, the players and coaches from both teams met in the lobby where players and coaches were given gifts courtesy of the league for their participation in the event.
Throughout the weekend, there were a number of other events that took place like an NHL style skills competition, involving a relay race and a shooting drill. Waldman said that the weekend tournament’s champion is decided by the competition, and the team that wins is rewarded with the coveted Casper Cup that has the names of the exchange’s founders on it.
Marblehead won the cup this time, and the teams get to hold onto it until they make the trek up to Canada in February, where it will be up for grabs again.
Though there are a number of games and competitions that happen in the event, the importance of the event is the bonds that the kids make with eachother off the ice. Most of the kids meet when they are first entering the program, and every year after, the league tries to pair the same kids together. Waldman notes that many have stayed friends even after they have grown out of the program, and it’s because of their shared love of hockey.
“They just become friends through hockey, through playing knee hockey and (the video game) NHL,” he said. Whether or not they speak English, whether or not they can communicate with each other that way, before there was no translator, so it’s a little easier now, but they just become friends through the love of hockey essentially.”
Waldman has three children, his son and both of his daughters, who have either gone through or are still in the program. He never played the sport as a kid, but his children took it up. Soon after, Waldman quickly became involved and it’s an experience that he will never forget.
“It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I didn’t play hockey growing up. My kids got into it and we had no idea what it was all about. The first time we did it we were like ‘Oh my God, this is crazy,’” he said.
St. Lambert returned home after the weekend to continue their hockey season north of the border, and now await the arrival of their friends from Marblehead to do it all over again in February.