As published in The Shoreline Beacon (Mar. 20, 2012).
Friendship: Uniting Hockey Players for 40 Years
By Jennifer Schleich
When long-time hockey coach John Bieth boarded a plane in 1971 he didn’t know he was also embarking on a 40-year journey to create a wonderful and long-lasting hockey relationship between Ontario and Pennsylvania.
The Southampton retiree just celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Friendship Exchange hockey program, an early spring exchange program which unites minor hockey players from Lancaster, Pennyslvania and Kitchener, Ontario for two weeks of hockey fun in February and March of every year.
“I think it’ll go another 40 years now, but I wouldn’t have imagined then that 40 years later it would still be going strong,” said Bieth.
The program was the brainchild of Bieth and Paul Pelland as a way of expanding the experience of young hockey enthusiasts in Lancaster.
“We were flying over Colorado and I was sitting beside him [Pelland]. We got talking about hockey and he said they were starting a team in Lancaster and asked me to bring my AAA All Star team down to play his boys,” explained Bieth.
Bieth knew if his team made the trip to Lancaster the game would just be for fun because their skill level was well beyond the first-time players in Lancaster.
“The boys’ parents said sure, why not, so we went there and played in the mall on a small rink because they didn’t even have an arena,” said Bieth. “They played most games in, essentially a barn with an ice surface, it was cold. Just 15 years ago they built a new arena.”
Bieth still remembers the first game between the two teams, with Kitchener out-scoring Lancaster 20-1, and 13 of those goals scored by a single player, Scott Fraser.
According to Bieth the exchange made a real difference in the quality of the hockey program in Lancaster over the years, although neither community took the idea very seriously at first.
“There’s no doubt it made a great difference in the hockey down there. Half of the people at the [40th anniversary] banquet were from Pennsylvania,” he said. “There was support to some degree but the community didn’t really get involved until the last few years. Even in Kitchener they didn’t take it seriously until a few years ago.”
Over the years the program has evolved. The original exchange of the two teams has expanded and now six to seven different teams from Kitchener visit Pennsylvania in February, and Lancaster reciprocates in March.
“Now we have teams from the little squints to the midgets, and its been like that for many years,” added Bieth. “I changed to coaching house league teams to keep the exchange competitive.”
The exchange has had its share of bumps in the road, said Bieth, but has been kept strong by volunteers. According to Bieth the commitment of current organizer Mike Aultman, who took over in 1994, has kept Kitchener moving full steam ahead with the exchange, as well as the work of Harold Hilsher of Pennsylvania who took up the reins when Pelland died in 1976.
“In the late 70s the bus from Pennsylvania crashed in New York and one of the boys died and 35 people were hurt,” he remembered. “It was a traumatic year and I thought, would they give up after but they didn’t -mostly because of Harold Hilsher.”
Bieth celebrated the milestone anniversary at a special banquet at Bingemans in Kitchener in February. Attending were 350 people, including players from the very first year of the exchange. Bieth began to tear up as he recalled the event.
“They got all the players up and marched the boys by me -it was something else,” he said. “The thing I think of most is how many kids have gone through and enjoyed the program and remember it for the rest of their lives.”
He said the emphasis of the program is on having fun, not winning games, and believes the most enjoyable part has been teaching all the kids about how to have fun on the rink.
“Advice I could give would be to just love the game of hockey, and you’ll become a good man,” said Bieth.
The thing Bieth misses most is the coaching and all the players.
“I miss it, but I get joy knowing there’s new players playing hockey and I had a part in that,” he added.
Bieth currently lives at Hampton Court in Southampton and has lived in the community for the past 12 years after retiring here with his wife. He coached minor hockey for approximately 15 years, his real passion, although he was a mechanic by trade and worked for GM all his life first as a mechanic then as a sales manager.
For more information about the history and ongoing programs run by the Friendship Hockey Exchange visit the organization’s website at www.friendshiphockey.com