Kids all over the world dream of getting a chance to play their favourite sport professionally. You don’t need to ask him to know Sidney Crosby wanted to be an NHL player. Just think about it: getting to play the sport you love at a high level while getting paid for it must be an experience of a life time.
And then, you get the players with a real story to tell. Meet Ryan Bahl, a San Diego, California native that has played pretty much everywhere around the world at the age of 26. In July, Bahl participated in the first ever ice hockey tournament for the Falkland Islands, the unofficial smallest hockey nation with a total population of just 2,932 people.
A brand new team with very resources and players to choose from, the Islands made their debut on the ice on July 2nd, with an 8-2 win over Santiago Yetis on Thursday setting the tone. The team finished that up with 14-3 and 6-3 victories over the next two days, earning them a spot in the finals of the four team tournament. The final match saw the Islands completely dominate the Argentian team Rio Grande Dragones, scoring nine goals in a 9-3 victory for the eventual champions.
Bahl was one of the stars for the Falkland Islands in their historic debut, and he was kind enough to talk to The Hockey House about his experience.
SE) So how did you specifically get involved with playing for the Falkland Islands?
RB) It was pretty simple actually, or maybe it was that things fell into place perfectly – one of the two. Basically leading up to July 2015 I had played ice hockey already on 5 continents (North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia) and I was trying to figure out which countries in South America had ice hockey. After doing some research I determined it was pretty much between going to Brazil, Chile or Argentina. I had reached out to all the different countries, their hockey federations, local clubs and things just sort of fell into place in Chile. At first I was talking to people that worked with the local Chilean club in Punta Arenas called Kotaix (named after the indigenous people) and it was sounding like I was going to be able to play with them, then randomly one day they told me that their team was full and they no longer needed anymore players (which later I think they may have regretted).
Luckily they were kind enough to pass my information on to Grant Budd the captain and founder of Falkland Island’s Ice Hockey. Grant did all the ground work in getting their first ever ice hockey team put together and was very generous in letting me be a temporary Falkland Islander for the cup. At first I thought it was just the name of the team and really had no idea what the Falkland Islands was. After speaking with Grant, getting to meet the guys, and learning their history – I discovered that I was part of history with the first ever ice hockey team from there (as well as going undefeated).
The only thing I really wish I could have done was actually get to the Falkland Islands and see some of the country I had been honored to represent.
SE) You’ve played pretty much everywhere. Maybe explain your path a little bit.
RB) This is true, although, there are plenty of places I have not been yet – which is what I like to concentrate on more. I have played ice hockey since I was about 5 years old. Growing up hockey was pretty normal playing for local AA/AAA clubs and then off to junior hockey. At this point I had also never really been out of North American. For high school graduation my grandparents actually take each grand child on a trip of their choosing, and I had asked if we could do a Germany and Central Europe trip. We spent a few weeks in Europe and I had loved everything about it – the travel, seeing new things, new foods, new people and cultures, and just everything that comes with traveling. I didn’t last long in college before deciding to hit the “road” and heading off to China/Hong Kong to play for my first team overseas in 2009/2010. That next Summer (2010-11) I was in New Zealand and played for the Canterbury Red Devils.
Right after New Zealand I headed home for only about 2 weeks (during this time I also met my awesome hockey wife) and then headed to the Czech Republic to play for Zdar and Sazavou for Fall of 2011-12. I didn’t last long there unfortunately. I tell people it was because I had to go to camp for a club in the ECHL (which is true), but in all reality it was because I met my wife (or I would make her my wife about 6 months later).
That same year in Summer of 2011-2012 I was asked to go down to Australia to play for a USA Representative team in the International Ice Hockey Cup, which is about a month long. That next fall of 2012-2013 I had a contract lined up to go play hockey in Belgium, but my wife and I decided that it was going to be too hard to play overseas and plan a wedding – we got married June 30th, 2013. A month after the wedding we were right back to it and headed to Sweden to play for Lions HC in the 2013-14 season. This was my wife’s first time out of country as well as playing hockey overseas. She is a really good player and usually ends up playing with women’s teams wherever we go or old boy skates with the senior teams. That summer of 2013-14 we moved from Sweden right to Cape Town, South Africa to play hockey there for about 6 months. I played with the Cape Town Storm and my wife played for the Lady Griffins.
At this point I had played hockey on 5 continents and was looking into how I could get to South America (which I would do the next summer). The next season we both went right to Spain and played the Fall 2014-15 season with CH Majadahonda out of Madrid. After our time in Spain I was able to finish up part of the season back in San Diego in the Mountain West Hockey League for a home town team. This next Summer of 2014-15 I was finally able to complete the 6th continent and was able to get on with the Falkland Island guys while playing in Chile. I had a really great time with them down there and it was one of my favorite trips. This current season of 2015-16 I am currently playing in Istanbul, Turkey for ZBB (Zeytinburnu Sports Club) – we just got back from the Continental Cup where we finished 2nd place in Group A, which no Turkish team has ever done.
SE) How does being a member of the first ever FI hockey team compare to playing all over the world?
RB) It’s a new record in the hockey world so I think it’s amazing! It’s also great to be apart of promoting the sport and getting other countries and people playing it. In our spare time my wife and I run a NPO called www.hockey4all.com where we try to promote hockey and giving people the chance to try it who may not otherwise have the means to do so. In both cases we get to be apart of promoting this wonderful sport and helping others get started. I am really honored to have been able to play with the Falkland guys. The team itself was full of a bunch of beauties also and it made for a perfect team atmosphere, which is why I think we went undefeated and it was been one of my favorite trips to date.
SE) How much preparation went into getting involved in the Copa Invernada in Chile?
RB) I knew in advance that hockey anywhere in South America is not all that great and that the rink was played 3 on 3, so not a lot of preparation went in for me personally. For me it was more about the adventure and being able to help promote the sport and do what I can for the clubs and teams participating. I know for the local guys in Chile they had to do a lot to set up the tournament and putting all that together, so I applaud what they did there. I also know that for the guys in the Falkland Islands they had a lot of preparation to do in order to be the first hockey team coming from their country.
SE) When the team finally got over to Chile, what was everyone thinking?
RB) I think a lot of the local guys from Punta Arenas, Santiago, and Argentina might have been a little intimidated by us at first. I was a pretty good player from North America and I am not sure they have seen too many in the past at my level, and then two of the guys from the Falklands had played pro and semi-pro levels back in the UK years ago. I think after all the guys got to know us they realized we were just visiting to have fun, play some hockey, and do some partying.
SE) What were your expectations heading into it?
RB) When I travel I really try not to get too many preconceived notions in my head or expect too much. I usually just jump on and go for the ride and take things as they come. With that I also don’t do a ton of planning on my trips and just do things as they come up – like local tours of the area, day trips, going out and night, etc. I also had never been to anywhere in South America so I’m not sure I even knew what to expect. I did quickly learn a lot, like how were were only about 600km from Antartica and how it gets pretty cold down there. I knew that the hockey wouldn’t be the greatest, but it was still more about the travel and meeting new people so I really didn’t expect much there. The people also turned out to be a lot nicer and more fun that what I had originally thought. I met some really great friends down there and I would love the chance to get back. I also quickly learnt that the exchange rate from the US dollar was unreal and everything was super cheap – our exchange at the time was like 1 US dollar to 632 Chilean pesos (I was buying beer for the boys all the time!
SE) For those who don’t know about the Copa Invernada, how does it compare to other hockey events in terms of skill and competition?
RB) It’s basically a week long tournament that is put on by the local government during their winter festival time. The teams this year comprised of our team the Falkland Islands, the Santiago team, the local Kotaix team from Punta Arenas, and the Dragons from Argentina. The rink is a very small rink in a mall so it is played 3 on 3 with teams having rosters of 5-8. We played with offsides and no icing – which was a little weird, because it is like roller hockey with the offsides. The Dragons from Argentina were the 2nd best team and we played them in the final. Their goalie was probably the best one of the tournament and a lot of their players are pretty good roller hockey players since Argentina has a pretty good roller program in the international circuit.
The organization for the tournament was also really nice and everything was taken care of such as the accommodation during the cup at a local hotel, meals, the games for the tournament, and then morning skates for practices. I think the event itself was very fun and worth the trip. I think if they could get a bigger rink built and get more international response for teams wanting to come the tournament and event could be even larger and better. It was also really surprising how much good press we got with lots of reporters at all the games doing interviews and the games being shown on live stream to people all over the world. These sorts of things are only as professional as you make them, and I think everyone involved did a great job with running a professional tournament.
SE) When you got the chance to win the title, was it a great and unique feeling?
RB) Yes, of course! Anytime you win something it’s always a great feeling. I was actually more excited for all the Falkland Island guys and their country. I knew this was a huge deal for them and with tensions (politically) between the Falkland Islands and Argentina it was great to see them beat their team in a sport final (as far as I know this may be one of the only times). I know the other guys on the team went back to the Islands as sport heroes and had a bunch of publicity about the win at the cup and I’m super happy I could have been there to help them win in. I’ve been asked to come back again next year, so who knows, maybe we will win again and go 2-0 in Copa Invernada Cups. I also shared the MVP / Scoring Leader trophies with another guy on our team named Jonathan, so it was a great for both us in terms of personal achievement as well.
SE) What are the immediate plans for the Falkland Islands to help them grow as a program?
RB) I have actually spent a lot of time speaking with Grant Budd about this and giving him my thoughts on what they can do. At the moment they only have dek hockey, which is like roller hockey on shoes. We talked about how if they want a great ice hockey program they need an ice rink either year round or temporary during the winter months, but of course it is super costly. Getting kids involved is always the most important thing for any hockey program so making sure they stay on top of getting kids involved is important as well. I believe they already do a pretty good job but doing hockey for free classes, school outings to show hockey and so on are the best way to do this. The last thing we talked about a lot was getting more international presence with their team. It would be great if their team could play in more tournaments around not only South America, but getting to Europe or North America as well. Look at all the press that came out of the team playing in one of the most southern cities in the world.
SE) How much outside support was needed to get the program to work?
RB) I believe a lot of the set up regarding the Falkland Islands Ice Hockey team revolved around Grant Budd (Captain/Manager), Martyn Barlow (President) and the local government. I am sure they could go over the support they got and stuff in more detail. I know they were also talking about getting more sponsors and more help from the government for next year’s cup, so maybe these sponsorships will be able to help with expenses in getting to the cup.
SE) When you look back at the event in five years from now, what do you expect to remember the most about it?
RB) Definitely the people and winning the cup. I had some great nights out with the boys after games or on days off and I will remember those for the rest of my life. I met some great people that I hope I will see again if it’s in Chile or somewhere else in the world. I will also remember winning the cup and celebrating with the guys from the Falkland Islands.
SE) Anything else you want to get across?
RB) This is a great event if you are looking at trying to play hockey in Chile or South America. I also highly recommend people try and play hockey overseas – it’s such an amazing ride and you won’t regret meeting new people, learning new cultures, and being able to play hockey (I even have a website that can help you do this at www.hockeyconnection.net).
Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL. You can follow Ryan on Twitter at @RyanBahl1.