Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Coed to cross-cultural — Hockey becomes ticket to international experience

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

When Whitney Ischi stepped on the ice to play hockey in Switzerland in September, she wasn’t quite the same as the rest of the players.

The rules of the game were different from what she was used to, for one thing. And being from Kenai, she wasn’t familiar with the culture, much less any of the languages spoken there. She couldn’t even talk to the coach.

But if she let differences from the rest of her team stop her from playing hockey, she wouldn’t have gotten that far in the first place.

Ischi, 19, grew up in Kenai, playing hockey since she was 5 with the Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association, and high school hockey at Kenai Central and Soldotna high schools. Being one of the few female players on the peninsula, it was either play with the boys, or not play.

“All through growing up I was basically the only girl down here on the peninsula that played. There weren’t many girls, and there were no girls teams down here to play on,” she said. “But it was difficult growing up being a girl playing hockey. A lot of people thought it wasn’t a place for girls to play.”
Ischi’s mother, Val, said she and her husband, Peter, encouraged Whitney to play, just as they did their son, Phillip.

“For us, we wanted the kids to do something they loved to do and something that was positive for them to do and helped take up their extra time,” Val said. “We spent a lot of money and a lot of time on it, but for us it was worth it. We didn’t have to worry about the kids getting into trouble. That was our goal. If it ended up being something they did after high school, great, but it was just something for the kids to do and not be couch potatoes.”

Even though she supported her daughter’s interest in hockey, Val said she was surprised that Whitney stuck with the sport.

“I think with it being typically not a girls sport and her having to play with the boys, I thought when she hit Peewee level and they started checking, this would be the point where she said, ‘That’s enough,’ and didn’t want to do this anymore,” Val said.

“The thing was, you are a girl. So, number one, you’re going to have to be a little tougher out there. And no whining. When you step on the ice, you’re a hockey player, you’re not a girl because you chose to play,” she said.

Whitney kept on playing through Peewee checking, through high school where the skaters got faster and bigger, through a girls competition league for Team Alaska and during a year of college in Minnesota.

“So far she’s done well and any injuries she’s had is against the girls,” Val said. “She had knee surgery from playing soccer, and went into the boards against girls. Go figure, you know?”

After her first year in college, Whitney wasn’t sure where she wanted to go with her education.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do this year. I wanted to take a year off school to figure it out. I didn’t want to waste another year of my family’s money,” she said.

Her older brother, Phillip, played pro hockey for Visp in Switzerland’s National League B for the past two seasons, and talked to his agent about a girls league. The teams are only allowed two “import,” or foreign, players, but both Whitney and Phillip got dual citizenship so they could play. This year, Phillip is playing for Crans-Montana and Whitney is playing for Kussnacht Rigi in the amateur Ladies A League.

Even though Whitney has family connections to Switzerland, she ended up there alone in September. Phillip didn’t head over for his season until Whitney was on her way back to Kenai for holiday break. Their grandmother had a condo in Switzerland, but she spends half the year in Hawaii.

Other then a family trip when she was 10, Whitney had never been to Europe. She doesn’t speak any of the languages spoken in Switzerland — French, Italian, German and Romansh. Her cell phone didn’t work and she didn’t have Internet access when she got there. She doesn’t have a car and the public transportation system was unfamiliar.

But she’s adjusted. There’s a translator on her team that helps her communicate when she’s in practice or games, and she’s taking German lessons. She’s got the transportation system figured out, and Phillip will be there when she gets back in January. She plans to travel with him for a month after hockey season is over in March.

“I really like Switzerland a lot,” Whitney said. “The whole other culture thing and how they go through life is different. Traveling on the transit system and the trains, that was very difficult at first, but now I like them.”

Her next moves are starting to fall into place. Whitney plans to take online classes next year to pursue a career as an X-ray technician. She may move back to Alaska someday, since her family is still here. Her parents own the Dairy Queen in Soldotna.

As for hockey, she plans to keep it a part of her life.

“It’s so different from other sports,” Whitney said. “… There’s so many different places that it takes you. You play people from all over. It’s so unexpected. There’s no certain plan. I can go any direction I want and can continue to do it anywhere, really.

“I’ll continue to keep playing for a couple more years, and if something else happens, something else happens.”

Whatever direction Whitney ends up going, Val expects she’ll skate down it with the same determination she’s showed in playing hockey.

“She’s very focused, very driven. There’s not a doubt in my mind she’ll succeed at it. If she couldn’t take it, she would be done. It was really her choice to do and she has just succeeded in it. She sets herself goals and she’s sure she’s going to attain them, and good for her,” Val said.

Phillip, who will be 23 in February, wants to see how far he can go in hockey, Val said.

“He found what he loves doing, and I wish him all the success in it,” she said. “Pete and I both have encouraged the kids to do it, mainly because how many people get that kind of experience? And learning the culture and all of those kinds of things is good. You might as well do it when you’re young and don’t have anything holding you back.”

That’s Whitney’s philosophy.

“Keep your mind open to any opportunity that comes your way,” she said. “Any chance to do something different, just take it. You always have your life to live afterward, but you can only be young once.”

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