POWASSAN – There is more going on at MAK Sports Academy than meets the eye.
Within the walls of the Powassan Eagle’s training facility, there is an exclusive brotherhood germinating.
“It’s a lot like college,” said Eagles’ forward Jimmy Steele.
Twenty-year-old Steele was recruited from Michigan and now lives with his fellow teammates at the academy in order to play for the Eagles this season – a move that has not only shown gains as a player, but in dozens of new friendships borne through necessity.
Steele said his decision to travel north was made easy because he knew the coach before moving to Canada to join the team.
“He played hockey with my brother in Juniors, so I trust his judgement,” he said, noting he committed to living at the sports compound without ever seeing the facility before the season started.
The Powassan Eagles is a Junior “A” hockey team that trains out of MAK Academy, located on Clark Street in Powassan.
The building is set up similar to a barracks, with shared accommodation and a dining hall. Throughout the day, the players have a variety of training exercises and courses to fill their time between games.
“Sometimes we have a lot of time off. Sometimes we’re really booked up. Just depends on the day,” said Steele.
He said the setup of the program and building creates a close dynamic between members of the team, as they live, learn, and play together.
The players have even traveled to North Bay together for a night on the town.
During their game against Toronto Attacks on Oct. 13, male camaraderie was at its peak. Testosterone was in overdrive as the team bellowed from the bench in protest to “bad calls” from the referees. Frustration soon gave way to elated howls and the sound of sticks and feet banging off the bench and boards as the team got one past the goalie.
As fans filled the bleachers to watch Canada’s favourite pastime, it wasn’t obvious to the naked eye that the game had a European twist.
More than half of the team’s players were recruited overseas, including defenseman Janek Krikava, who traveled from Czech Republic to play for Powassan.
“It’s an opportunity for me to push myself to a higher league,” said Krikava.
Although Europe has more hockey leagues available and more opportunity for a player to go professional, Krikava, who would like to achieve a professional hockey career in Europe, said teams look favourably on players who have competed in Canada.
This is the first time 16-year-old Krikava has been this far away from his family, including his younger brother. But he says he uses Skype, an Internet service that allows users to communicate by voice, video, and instant messaging, to keep in touch with friends and family overseas.
Like Krikava, 19-year-old Martin Kysa also hails from Czech Republic. The goalie said he’s still adapting to Canadian life.
Although when it comes to the menu at the academy, it’s the North American players who have noticed a change. In order to cater to the team’s mainly European players, the academy has hired a chef from Czech Republic.
“It’s more healthy. Lots of pasta and rice,” said Steele. “Nothing really greasy. Lots of carbs.”
Both Kysa and Krikava agreed that learning the language has been the biggest battle of the season so far. As part of the sports academy program, non-English speaking players take daily classes in English as a second language.
Kysa said the language barrier is frustrating during the game, since the referees don’t always understand what he is saying.
During a recent game he received a 12-minute penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct after saying a few words in his native tongue, which offended the referee. Kysa wouldn’t confirm whether the referee was right in being offended, but maintains the man didn’t know what he said and therefore can’t attribute the words to being unsportsmanlike.
He said he’s still learning what he can and can’t get away with on the ice.
Outside of verbal aggression, Kysa said he has noticed a higher amount of physical violence during games since coming to Canada.
“They don’t fight on the ice in Czech,” Kysa said.
Steele agreed the atmosphere on the ice is more aggressive in North America.
“There’s always someone looking for a fight,” said Steele. “It’s just part of the game.”
Steele knows first hand the level of aggression involved in the sport. As of the team’s ninth game, he already had three teeth knocked out.
“One of them was from practice,” he explained. “I got hit with a stick right in the mouth.”
Krikava has also been affected by the aggression on ice, having sustained a concussion during a recent game.
According to Eagles defenseman and Powassan native Kevin Palfrey, 21, his European counterparts put more emphasis on technique rather than brute strength.
“They put a lot of importance on skating,” said Palfrey. “They’re really good skaters.”
Their technique is serving the team well, although they lost their game to Toronto on Oct. 14, 7 to 4.
The Eagles are set to host the Mattawa Voyageurs this Saturday, Oct. 20, at 7:30 p.m. at the Powassan Sportsplex. Warm ups will begin at 7 p.m., so it’s a great time to head out and show some community spirit while watching an action-packed game. Pre-game tickets are available at MAK academy, located at 250 Clark St.
As for the future, Kysa, who is currently in his final year of high school, said he would consider a career in hockey back home.
“Canada has the best junior leagues, but in Czech Republic there are a lot more leagues so it is easier to go professional,” he said.
Palfrey is currently enrolled in the criminal justice program at Nipissing University and said he doesn’t see himself pursuing anything in professional sports.
With his three teammates etching out clear goals in their careers, Steele takes the cooler approach.
“Right now, I’m just living,” he said.