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Girls hockey: Icebreakers share smiles and friendship with game against team from Norway

While hockey might not be king in the Land of the Midnight Sun, it sure was popular with these players.

Duluth Icebreakers play hockey against a team from Oslo, Norway.
Two players from the Baerum Wildcats in Oslo battle for the puck in the second half of a game Wednesday, Oct. 5, at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. Players from both teams switched jerseys in the second half for teams made of players from both countries.
Jamey Malcomb / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Duluth Central graduate Wes Caple returns home to Duluth every summer and three years ago he mentioned to his buddy Rick Haney the idea of bringing a girls hockey team from Oslo, Norway, to Minnesota as part of a cultural exchange.

With the COVID pandemic soon to hit, it took a while for that idea to come to fruition, but Wednesday at Amsoil Arena, it was certainly a reality as the Duluth Icebreakers U15 team hosted the Baerum Wildcats U16 team.

“This is really nice. I love this country,” Wildcats forward Aziza Abouzeid said.

Wednesday’s contest with the Icebreakers was the last scheduled game of the Wildcats' Minnesota trip.

The group of 20 players and 22 parents and siblings arrived Saturday as the Wildcats had games against Minneapolis, Edina and Lakeville South. The parents are easy to spot wherever they go as they wave Norwegian flags with their distinct blue and white Scandinavian cross on a red background.

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The Wildcats are going to tour Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul Thursday before attending the Minnesota Wild preseason game against the Chicago Blackhawks that night. Then they are going to have a training session Friday with Minnesota Gophers women’s hockey coaches before leaving Saturday.

“You get passionate about trying to help these girls with a sustainable girls hockey program,” Caple said. “I really wanted something to help keep these girls playing through their teenage years.”

Duluth Icebreakers play hockey against a team from Oslo, Norway.
Shawn Davidson, a volunteer with the Duluth Icebreakers hockey team, talks strategy with Selma Onarheim of Oslo, Norway, during a game Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022, at Amsoil Arena.
Jamey Malcomb / Duluth News Tribune

From Duluth to Oslo and back

Haney, a Duluth East graduate, went to Oslo in the winter of 1995-96 season to play bandy, a precursor to hockey that uses a ball instead of a puck. He played for Ready, an Oslo team, and helped the team move up to the Elite division, the top level in Norway. He recruited Caple to join him the next season.

“I went over there the next year and never came back,” said Caple, a former St. Cloud State left winger.

Caple stayed in Oslo, working and later marrying a local Norwegian woman. They have two children, and their daughter, Ida, 16, plays on the team that came over here.

When Caple and his family came to Duluth this summer, he got together with Haney. They discussed adding a game in Duluth for their tour of Minnesota.

Haney, a Proctor-Hermantown Mirage girls hockey assistant coach, enlisted John and Vanessa Paulson with the Duluth Girls Hockey Association to come on board, and they were all for it, even if this time of year is still the preseason. Their daughter, Jesse, got to meet Ida.

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“This is their way of trying to build it up,” Haney said. “When I was in Norway, even with the boys, hockey wasn’t really popular, and there wasn’t any girls hockey, or at least, none that I saw.

“Hockey came from bandy, so we started with a sport like bandy to try to introduce others to try it, so this makes perfect sense. I wish I could have been a youth playing hockey and got to go play for a week in whatever country. That would have been a dream for me.”

Abouzeid has been playing hockey since she was six years old and it’s the only sport she plays. She used to tag along with her older cousin to the rink and fell in love with the sport.

Duluth Icebreakers play hockey against a team from Oslo, Norway.
Playes from the Duluth Icebreakers and Baerum Wildcats of Oslo, Norway, play in the second half of a game Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022, at Amsoil Arena.
Jamey Malcomb / Duluth News Tribune

However, her options are more limited as hockey is a club sport in Norway. She said handball, soccer and skiing are the popular girls sports. Since hockey isn’t offered at the high school level, she will already be playing in the women’s ranks as a 16-year-old this upcoming season.

“I was really excited when first hearing about this trip,” Abouzeid said.

Then it was time to get to work.

The girls raised money selling socks and even picked invasive oysters out of the Oslo fjord.

How many oysters did she pick out?

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“I don’t know — many,” Abouzeid said, drawing a laugh.

The girls earned this trip.

Abouzeid finished Thursday’s game with a hat trick, showing that while hockey might not be super popular in Norway, there’s certainly some talent.

“She’s a wizard out there,” Caple said.

Abouzeid scored the final goal in the closing seconds on a sweet crossing pass from Thea Lothe as the Wildcats pulled out a 3-3 tie in the second half after dominating the first half 7-2.

“I was really happy with that last one,” said Abouzeid, who said she would love to play college in the United States but admitted “it’s hard” given the lack of structure in Norway.

Caple said there are almost 400 indoor rinks in Minnesota; he said Norway has 45.

For Abouzeid, this is certainly her kind of state.

Duluth Icebreakers play hockey against a team from Oslo, Norway.
Hailey Truitt, left, and Nora Good of the Duluth Icebreakers hockey program celebrate with pizza after their game with the Baerum Wildcats of Oslo, Norway, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022,
Jamey Malcomb / Duluth News Tribune

More than just a game

The Icebreakers’ Sasha Cole had a nifty breakaway goal where she lifted the goal up and in, top shelf. Not bad for a 12-year-old seventh-grader at Ordean East Middle School.

The 4-foot-10 Cole likes a variety of sports but said hockey is her favorite because “it’s just more enjoyable,” especially when you can play a skilled team like the Norwegians.

“This was really fun,” Cole said. “We got to meet with them a little bit in the locker room when they came in to switch jerseys, then on the bench, too.”

Cole was asked what was the best part about the game, and she said, “the experience.”

Former Minnesota Duluth women's hockey assistant coach Shawna Davidson is now the associate girls hockey head coach at Duluth Marshall with Callie Hoff.

Davidson remains active with youth hockey in Duluth and was on the bench Thursday. They mixed up the rosters for the second half and Norwegian players started asking her about the Icebreakers distinct logo.

Duluth Icebreakers play hockey against a team from Oslo, Norway.
Mathilde Stenstad-Persen of Oslo, Norway, talks with Vivian Yates of the Duluth Icebreakers hockey team during a game Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022, at Amsoil Arena. The Icebreakers played the Baerum Wildcats, with some players switching teams at halftime.
Jamey Malcomb / Duluth News Tribune

“I was explaining, that’s the Aerial Lift Bridge, that’s the state of Minnesota,” Davidson said. “It was pretty cool that they liked it.”

They even wanted jerseys with the Icebreakers logo but had to settle for little gift bags that included Icebreakers stickers, among other trinkets. The Wildcats’ uniforms were quite distinct, with a turquoise and red color scheme.

“I liked their colors, and we liked their helmet stickers, too,” Davidson said. “I think one of their girls even helped with the design.”

Afterward, everyone got together for a group photo. There was a lot of friendly banter from the players as they hung out on the ice, fake fighting and fist bumping, hockey helping make fast friends of people who come from 3,897 miles apart.

After getting changed, they all met up near the concourse. As the sunshine of a 75-degree perfect Duluth day lit up the room, the players were treated to pizza and a social.

“Everyone wins,” Davidson said.

After getting such a positive response, and seeing all the smiles, Caple was asked the natural question.

Could he see doing this again?

“I think it’s going to be tough not to,” he said. “This is spreading like wildfire back in Norway. The younger teams are already asking.”

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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