Meet the People Behind Pushing International Hockey

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The conversation about world ice hockey usually starts and stops at the top nations. Canada, U.S., Sweden, and Finland, it wouldn’t be hard to believe if ice hockey was only played at the top. But that simply isn’t true and people like Scott Howe and Michael Baitinger travel to nations like Kenya, Ecuador, Egypt, and North Korea to show that there is a passion for the sport there as well.

Howe and Baitinger are both leaders of organizations that have a hand in going all around the world and helping bring awareness and funds to those places. Howe is the co-founder of Friendship League which organizes trips to these countries where they would have matches against locals. Baitinger is the founder of Urban Hockey Foundation which helps raise funds for all sorts of hockey from his home city of Detroit to Ecuador and Kenya.

Friendship League and Kenyan Team holding up a Kenya flag. Taken via Friendship League, Scott Howe.

“We don’t only raise money for urban projects. Anywhere that needs help with funds we are willing to help out. Urban or not,” Baitinger said.

But their long and interesting journey didn’t start anywhere close to Canada. For Howe, it started after he took a trip to North Korea when he was conducting some of the country’s first organized programs for their Special Olympics. He and co-founder Gordon Israel grew the organization from a few trips to a full tour.

The program evolved to the point where they were able to get Canadian legend Hayley Wickenheiser to go on a trip to North Korea before the 2018 Winter Olympics. “When we got someone as famous and talented (as Wichenheiser), that was a special moment for us,” Howe said.

The events went on going from country to country. Kenya, Turkmenistan, Mongolia, Egypt, and Ecuador. It really seemed like there was no location that had an ice rink that was too much for these travelers. Baitinger got into contact with the organization.

“My first trip was going to be Kenya. But because of Covid, the trip got canceled and it was a real bummer. So, when I saw the next trip to Egypt, I booked a spot the first chance I got,” Baitinger said.

Baitinger had always been into hockey and his local community. He coached youth hockey around Detroit until the usual groups he coached for were starting to age out. After that, he volunteered his time at an organization called the Clark Park Coalition. It’s an organization that helps kids in Southwest Detroit to have access to sports and a lot of kids that are involved are Latino.

Friendship League in Ecuador playing co-ed matches. Taken via Friendship League, Scott Howe.

Covid happened in 2020 and with a lot of money cut from sports programs in Detroit, Baitinger came together with some friends and founded an organization at a grassroots level in urban or remote underserved areas. Since then, he has done a lot of work for Detroit but has also gone global with help getting equipment and other important items to places like Egypt and Ecuador.

And now since Covid has not been a huge issue, Baitinger will be getting his wish to go to Kenya to play hockey in early 2023. But these trips aren’t all about hockey. They are about being introduced to a culture and country they may not be experienced in and trying something new. On their Egypt trip, they went to the pyramids, and in Ecuador, they went into the Amazon rain forest.

The people they also get for their trips come from around the world. They are mostly hockey fanatics that are from well-established countries like Canada, United States, Germany, and others. The crowds are also well-packed and especially after covid, they have found a lot of success in getting people on board with the program.

For the future, Howe and the Friendship League are looking to get high schoolers involved with trips to Kenya and Ecuador during the summer and hope to find new and interesting countries to bring a trip to and play hockey to. While Baitinger is growing Urban Hockey Foundation and hopes to continue to grow hockey in places where it can be a financial burden. Whatever happens with the future of ice hockey around the world, these two among many others are a huge reason it’s growing.

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