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The mountains stood to the left and an array of national flags to the right, while male and female ice hockey players from all around the world laughed and chatted as they glided onto the ice.
Their competition was long over, and the medals already awarded, but the 32 players who had contested the ice hockey skills challenge wanted more. Athletes from more than 20 countries competed in an informal pond hockey match on Friday morning on the outdoor rink at the Lillehammer 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games.
Japan coach Hiroki Wakabayashi said his athletes were desperate to play a game. “They were so happy,” he said. “Competing for the skills challenge is one thing, and they are proud of doing it, but they are hockey players and they just want to play.”
With only 10 teams competing in the ice hockey team competition, the men’s and women’s skills challenge provided an opportunity for more athletes to take part at the YOG.
The skills challenge focused on individual elements like puck precision and agility. However the players wanted the opportunity to participate in a proper game, so the coaches came up with the idea of staging an informal match.
“I saw the outdoor rink on day one and the wheels just started turning,” said New Zealand’s Justin Daigle, who based the idea on the Winter Classic in the North American National Hockey League, which attracts nearly 100,000 spectators every year.
Daigle said the athletes unanimously wanted to play the game. The only issues were with the national federations, who were concerned the players could get injured. Those worries helped to dictate the rules: no checking, no offsides and no contact.
“It’s an incredible opportunity to bring all of these youth [players] together. This is what the games are about.” Daigle said. “When else will they get this chance to play with people from all these different countries in a carefree environment?"
“There is no pressure, no right plays and no wrong plays. It’s about having fun and getting an opportunity to connect with one another.”
Every athlete from the skills challenge participated, with men and women on both sides and teams decided by the colour of their national jersey – lighter colours versus darker colours. The athletes played competitively, although the score did not matter.
Japan's Roy Kanda celebrates scoring in ice hockey's friendly game on Friday.
“It’s good to do something different” said Theresa Schafzahl, from Austria, who collected the bronze medal on Tuesday night in the women’s skills challenge. “This sport is just so much fun and it’s awesome to be able to play it here. I like playing with the boys, because it’s much faster and more exciting. It’s just better that way.”
The coaches hope that this event may continue at future YOGs and that in the future it could become sanctioned as a fun way for athletes to conclude the Games.
“To bring all these countries together, this is unique,” said Harry Springfeld, the International Ice Hockey Federation’s on-ice skater for the skills challenge. “This is a very nice finish for all the athletes.”
Written by Emily Bayci and Jerick Sablan, IOC Young Reporters