Team Canada started its Road to Sochi 2014 at the Okanagan Hockey Academy, and will take its final steps before leaving for Russia there as well.
There is a difference, though. The 27 players centralized with Canada’s National Women’s Team for the 2013-14 season attended boot camp May 27 to June 19 at the Okanagan Hockey Academy in Penticton, B.C. The 21 players named to the Canadian Olympic roster are currently spending 10 days training, practising and competing at the Okanagan Hockey Academy Europe in St. Pölten, Austria. That’s a distance of about 8,330 kilometres between the two schools.
Like its British Columbian sister facility in Penticton, the Okanagan Hockey Academy Europe in St. Pölten is Canadian owned and operated, offering a little taste of home – with a lot of international flavor. The school welcomed Canada’s National Women’s Team on Jan. 22 and will host the red and white until they depart for Sochi on Feb. 1.
The Okanagan Hockey Academy Europe was founded six years ago as a subsidiary of the Penticton school, the biggest and oldest hockey academy in the world. With plenty of Canadians connected to the well-established school already coaching overseas, the small Austrian city near Vienna presented itself as an ideal location for its European version.
“It looked like a very suitable place for an academy, with a dormitory being built, and school being built and a campus environment,” Elias Vorlicek, director of operations for the Okanagan Hockey Academy Europe, said this week from St. Pölten. “And a brand new arena.”
“We have the dressing room space, the gym facilities they need for their workouts and we have a beautiful hotel,” Vorlicek added. “If we can help Team Canada … in their Olympic preparations, it’s great.”
Team Canada’s time in St. Pölten gives the Olympians the chance to practise, train and compete in first-class facilities, while getting acclimatized to being overseas, before taking to the Olympic ice.
Their schedule includes two more exhibition games against high level boys’ teams, with the puck dropping Jan. 24 against the school’s under-18 varsity team and again on Jan. 28 against the school’s under-20 prep team.
“Our boys are excited,” Vorlicek said. While this season’s 31 other games against boys teams have been all-Canadian affairs, with 29 games in the Alberta Midget Hockey League and a couple versus the Edge School for Athletes in Calgary, the two Lower Austria Stars teams from Okanagan Hockey School Europe feature players from around the world.
“We’ve got a big mix of players from a lot of different countries,” prep team head coach Gary Prior said, also over the phone from St. Pölten. “Having most of our players from Europe, and a lot of them … actually from Russia, they play a little bit (of) dangling hockey, so maybe that will be good for the girls.”
Prior said facing off against Canada’s National Women’s Team is “a chance in a lifetime” for the Lower Austria Stars. “Just the fact that they’re on their way to the Olympics in a couple of weeks, it’s just a huge honour for these boys.”
Okanagan Hockey Academy president Andy Oakes said the Okanagan Hockey Academy Europe started with “satellite hockey schools in different parts of Europe.”
“We decided that we needed to find a home base,” he said from Penticton, adding his Canadian school worked with Austrian business and government partners to make it happen. “The facilities in St. Pölten, with the school right on site … are just fantastic.”
Oakes said hosting Canada’s National Women’s Team at Okanagan Hockey Academy, whether in Penticton or Pölten, is simply a natural fit. In fact, Canada’s National Women’s Program alumnae Gina Kingsbury and Rebecca Russell coach the female prep team at the B.C. location.
“We’re Canadian fans through and through,” Oakes said. “So, being able to assist one of the national teams on their quest for a gold medal is important for us, and we’re happy to be able to help with their journey … we believe in them.”
But giving the game that global feel while taking on the Lower Austria Stars on Jan. 24 and Jan. 28 may be just what Canada’s National Women’s Team needs before defending its gold medal at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
“We are excited to be able to start and finish the Road to Sochi at the Okanagan Hockey Academy, which has made us feel comfortable throughout our Olympic journey,” said Melody Davidson, Hockey Canada’s general manager of National Women’s Team programs.
“This is a positive and productive environment for our team,” she said. “Our final training both on and off the ice here in Austria will be pivotal to our success at the upcoming Olympics.”