St. Olaf experiences women's hockey and life abroad
Afton Goebel, MIAC-2/1/2013

NORTHFIELD, Minn. -- Balance is an essential component of a student-athlete's life at the NCAA Division III level. Throughout Division III and the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC), student-athletes are afforded the opportunity to embrace the entirety of their college experience, including participation in athletics with a focus on academics and the chance to participate in extra-curricular activities.

One of those extra-curricular activities - that ties in with the academic component - is the opportunity to study abroad. However, winter sport athletes are often faced with the decision to miss at least part of their season since it is split over the two semesters. At St. Olaf College, Head Women's Hockey Coach John Bazzachini noticed that often times his dedicated players would choose their team over opportunities to study in a foreign country, so last summer he decided to use hockey to help his players see the world. Bazzachini has always allowed his athletes to study abroad during the academic school year but not everyone takes the opportunity to do so. "I allow my players to study abroad, but believe at Division III, when you're paying for your education, for me to ever tell them they can't do it because of hockey, that's not OK," he said.

However, even the coach knows the dedication and passion student-athletes have for athletics in the MIAC and Division III, and often times the players are comfortable sacrificing one area of their college experience to benefit in another area. Ole senior Nicole Stumpf explained, “Most of us do not travel abroad during our four years at St. Olaf because we have hockey in the fall, winter and spring.”“Some of our athletes are just so committed to playing hockey,” Bazzachini added. Due to that mentality of not wanting to miss all or part of a hockey season, Bazzachini decided this trip could be an opportunity for his players to get the experience abroad that they may not otherwise enjoy. “Games were low on my list of priorities for going abroad," he said. "The focus of the trip was directed towards being an opportunity for the players to learn and experience new cultures while bonding with their teammates.

Last August, Bazzachini and the Oles took advantage of the NCAA's "foreign tour policy," which allows collegiate teams to go on a foreign trip for athletic-related activities once every three years. In August, St. Olaf embarked on an eight-day excursion to Europe. While Overseas, the team played against three European club teams and took in many of the sights and sounds of Italy, Switzerland and other surrounding countries. “I have never entertained the thought of taking one of my teams abroad,” said Oles' Head Coach John Bazzachini. Many hockey teams use the semester break for such adventures, but the thought of having to take a trip over a winter break and leaving his family over the holidays never appealed to the coach of eight years. It was not until 2011, when Bazzachini met Brad Doshan at a hockey coaches’ convention, that the idea of a trip became feasible. Doshan is the founder of Eurosportours, an organization based in America that plans trips abroad for sports teams ranging from the youth level, all the way up to collegiate team tours. The agency has close relationships with many sports teams in Europe including soccer, golf and hockey. They act as a liaison between the different teams arranging when games will take place and planning the day-to-day itinerary for the team visiting from America.

The St. Olaf staff began planning with Eurosportours to allow them to travel over the summer, instead winter break which alleviated Bazzachini's chief concern. It also provided them with the opportunity to play better teams that they would not have been able to face had they traveled at a different time. The competition benefits definitely appealed to Bazzachini, but were still not the main motivation behind the tour. Over their nine days in Europe, the team was able to travel and explore places such as Como, Balbinello, Zurich, the Ligurian Coast, Milan, Venice and Lugano. They took two separate boat tours, one taking them on an expedition around Lake Como where they were able to see world famous villas - including one belonging to actor George Clooney. The second boat trip took them to the Ligurian Coast where they spent the rest of the day swimming and relaxing. Other highlights included a trip to Venice, an excursion into the famous Swiss Alps, cliff-jumping in the Mediterranean, and two other staples of any successful trip to Italy - beaches and shopping.

The team was able to explore each of the travel destinations while taking in all the historic sites and architecture, as well as learning about the different cultures. “It was fun bonding with our team, logging many hours together [during our travels],” said St. Olaf junior Kira Clunis. “We were able to see many interesting and historic parts of Italy and Switzerland,” added Stumpf. The wide-eyed and astonished expressions Bazzachini saw on the faces of his players justified his plan to take his players on an unforgettable foreign tour that would leave a lasting impression far beyond the hockey results and box scores. “They were asking questioning about everything and taking the time to soak in every opportunity,” he said.

Another learning experience was having the opportunity to play hockey against opponents from foreign backgrounds. “It was really fun to play the two different teams because the style of play was so different,” said Clunis. After playing the Lugano team, both teams had dinner together, and the St. Olaf players enjoyed the chance to feast on authentic brick-oven pizza in Italy. “The communication between the teams was a little difficult,” said Clunis. “If they did not know English they often knew Spanish or French which many of us know from taking classes at St. Olaf.” "Learning about [the other team's] backgrounds was interesting; how they grew up, how they got to be where they are in hockey," added Bazzachini. "Some of our girls still stay in contact with some of those players."
However, it wasn't just the bonds with the opponents that were strengthened. St. Olaf was a close-knit team heading into the trip, and the memories, the laughs and even the pranks - including a few pulled at the head coaches' expense - helped bring the Oles even closer together and appreciate the bond they share both in and out of hockey season."[The trip] made me remember how great our team is and how much fun we all have together," Stumpf said. "These girls are my best friends and being able to travel with them to Italy made me realize, even more, how much I love being and Ole and a player on this particular team.""Being a part of the St. Olaf hockey team is really just like being a part of one big family," added Clunis. "We are always there to support each other and we get along better than any other team. The trip to Italy was so amazing because it was traveling across the world with 22 of my best friends. Who could ask for a better time!"

Looking back on the trip to Italy and back, Bazzachini is pleased with the experience that was provided for his coaches, players and their parents. He was happy they got a chance to hone their craft on the ice against some talented European teams, but was even more thrilled for the life experience gained by all. "It ended up being a tremendous blend," Bazzachini said. "It was something all the coaches, players and parents enjoyed. The parents really enjoyed the trip much better than they expected. I think it went much better than we could have ever imagined." The success already has Bazzachini brainstorming his next European adventure with the Oles. Seeing how it benefitted his current team, he hopes to make it a staple that all future St. Olaf players can experience going forward. "Moving forward, if we can do this trip every four years, then every class will be touched by it," Bazzachini commented.