by Matt Gajtka
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — It’s only natural to be curious when someone from another country joins your classroom, workplace, or whatever type of group you might be part of.
But when you grow up playing hockey in North America, you get used to encountering people from certain puck-loving countries, places in Europe like Sweden, Finland, Czechia, Slovakia and Russia.
Leave it to BK Selects 19U forward Nikki Sharp to break that trend. A native of Perth, Australia, Sharp transferred in to Bishop Kearney last summer for her one and only season with the Selects, and her background definitely qualifies as novel for most people she encounters — especially her teammates.
“The girls are definitely interested,” Sharp said earlier this fall after the 19Us’ productive weekend in Detroit at the USA-Canada Cup.
“All of them ask me about Australia. It’s very different from America, I find.”
In what ways?
“Oh, I wouldn’t be able to describe it,” she said, smiling, “but if you visited both places you’d be able to see a difference.”
Fair enough. Not like most of us could call Sharp’s bluff on that, anyway.
But if we could put the shrimp-on-the-barbie stereotypes aside for a moment, Sharp does inject a different kind of mindset to the very Type-A world of elite youth hockey, and it’s a demeanor that seems prevalent among those who hail from Down Under.
“She brings an easygoing, calm, collected personality to the team,” said Cari Coen, BK Selects’ 19U Associate Coach/Director of Girls Hockey. “In North America we’re more chomping at the bit, but she brings a lot of poise. She’s always putting smiles on girls’ faces.”
Ideally, including international students in one’s school serves both sides. The individual brings their unique perspective and abilities, which the institution benefits from, while the school provides opportunity for the person to advance themself in a discipline or course of study.
That’s the goal at Bishop Kearney with its international program in general, but specifically as it relates to the BK Selects hockey teams, literal goals on the ice are also kept firmly in mind. And maximizing the effectiveness of the team means helping someone feel like she’s somewhat less than a full day’s flight from home.
For instance, in the case of Sharp over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, it’s making sure she has some company after all her teammates were able to head back home for a few days.
“We’re always trying to make the team better and more inclusive,” said 19U Head Coach/VP of Hockey Paul Colontino. “Cari (Coen) does an awesome job keeping a pulse on all that.
“We try to raise the girls’ levels of independence and try to be proactive and setting up the appropriate meetings and seeing the appropriate people when assessing what their needs are. It’s necessary to make that effort.”
Sharp is one of two international students on the 19U team, along with Czech goaltender Michaela Hesová. Bishop Kearney permits two on each squad, with Canadians typically taking at least one of those spots. Indeed, on the boys side of the program, every international spot this school year is claimed by a Canadian student athlete.
The girls’ 16U team includes Nova Scotian defender Alara Murphy, but three of the four international girls are from overseas. Denmark-born eighth-grade forward Olivia Olesen rounds out the younger group.
“I was really interested in attending a good academy, so my dad and I talked a lot about it,” said Olesen, who’s been playing hockey since she was 3. “When I heard about BK, it sounded interesting and an awesome place.”
BK coaches often get exposed to potential international students while taking part in outside endeavors with player-promotion organizations like Premier Ice Prospects. That’s how Hesová — about to compete in her second Women’s World Under-18 Championship for Czechia — got on the Selects’ radar, while Sharp actively reached out to BK after spending last season playing for A21 Academy in Ontario.
Sharp, whose family lived in Montréal for four years before moving back to Australia, had played against BK Selects in a couple of showcases that A21 competed in. She came away impressed enough to consider a switch as she entered her senior year still looking for an athletic scholarship.
“I needed a change,” Sharp said, “and I thought it would be the best move for me. I wanted to keep pushing myself and I really wanted to attend college in the U.S.”
Sharp achieved her goal, recently committing to NCAA Division III Nazereth College, located just down the road from Rochester in Pittsford.
Her hockey focus for the rest of the year settles now on further developing her skills, which she hopes to help the 19Us to championships this spring, and her homeland to higher levels of the game in international competition. After competing for the Australian Under-18 team for a couple of years, she’s graduated to the senior team, which is currently fighting it out with fellow fledgling hockey nations like Turkey, Croatia and neighbor New Zealand in Division IIB — four levels below the likes of the USA, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Denmark and Czechia.
“We’re trying to move up,” Sharp said. “We came close last year but lost in a shootout (in the Division IIB championship game).”
Olesen participated in a couple of Danish Under-18 training camps, but at 13 years old, she’s still very much building the foundation of her hockey career, not to mention her life in general.
“When I got a little older and got better (at hockey),” she said, “I realized I really wanted to play at a high level one day, and I want to be the best I could be.”
Bishop Kearney High School has a system set up to guide international students along their course of study, with special focus on those for whom English is a second language.
“Classwork was tough at first but it progressively got better over time,” said Hesová, who’s in her second school year at BK. “Teachers were always very supportive and understanding and helped in any way possible. And if you ask any of the teachers for extra help, they will happily give you a time so you can come see them and they can help you.
“They always try to make sure and do their best so that you as a student can succeed. Also, we have very good academic counselors who are an amazing help as well.”
For Olesen, who said her favorite subjects at BK so far are “religion and math,” assimilating into the American education system has required some adjustments on her part, but nothing she finds overwhelming.
“It’s going good,” she said. “It’s kind of different from what I’m used to (in Denmark), but it’s going pretty well. Sometimes it’s hard because (the instruction) is in a high level of English but I do my best.”
Fortunately, the language of hockey provides an instant connection for anyone who plays the sport. Coen said that while the spoken word hasn’t been a huge barrier in the several years she’s been on the BK Selects staff, it always helps when certain playing concepts have universal recognition.
For coaches, the upshot is you don’t have to know how to say ‘forecheck’ in two or three different languages to get your point across.
“What’s really cool about hockey is that it’s very visual,” Coen said. “Watching patterns, understanding concepts and then doing them, and if that individual has questions, we always have that person come up (to the coaches) so we can break it down.”
Indeed, he sport that brought Hesová to America in the first place has quite literally been an icebreaker during her time in Western New York.
“It’s almost like an international language,” she said. “When I first arrived at BK, it was mostly hockey that literally forced me to start building friendships with people around me, because hockey is almost the same everywhere. In general it helps me a lot.”
And once international students get past all the potential cultural challenges, there’s the matter of, you know, actually playing hockey at a high level.
While it’s not an issue unique to those born overseas, someone like Sharp had to make quite the mental shift once she jumped from Australian youth leagues to competition on this continent. She said the class of teammates she now enjoys is just as much of a change as the opposition she faces.
“Hockey’s very small back home,” Sharp said. “I felt like I was one of the better players there. I used to think I was a goal-scorer. On this team I’ve changed roles with such talented girls. I’m trying to figure out what my role is. It’s a very big jump.”
Olesen said her “understanding of the game” is one area in which she’d like to improve over the duration of the season, but that’s more a matter of maturation and experience than it is the fact that Danish is her native tongue.
“I feel like it’s going good so far, but the hockey is at a really high level,” she said.
As Colontino reminds, though, this is the sort of transition any player must face when moving up — both in age and caliber of competition.
“We have a lot of the best players from their previous teams,” he said. “It’s a huge blessing to go through that experience at this age level because it prepares them for the university level.
“With that we have to understand how integral each person is. While your role may be different, you’re just as important as your previous place, maybe even more so. It’s just understanding, fundamentally, that you used to be this and that and now you’ve evolved.”
Hesová has already starred on the international stage at the World U-18s, but she still feels like every game and practice at BK sharpen her puck-stopping abilities.
“Playing here has made me work harder and always compete to the best of my ability, which I then transfer to all of my games and practices whether they are here or at the U-18s,” Hesová said. “The people around me also give me incredible support so every time I go to events like these, I know that I have coaches, teammates and even teachers or classmates supporting me from across the ocean.”
There are also certain calendar checkpoints for international students to look forward to, which help the assimilation process in their own ways. One of those is the upcoming winter break, which is long enough to allow every player to spend some time under their former roofs.
“I do miss my family a lot,” Olesen said, “but I’m happy I’ll see them soon.”
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.