Slapping a Canadian Maple Leaf on your backpack when travelling abroad may have its perks, but Craig Klinkhoff has found an even better way to make friends in foreign lands.
He's one of the young Montrealers behind Hockey Without Borders, a Canadian non-profit organization that aims to support fledgling ice-hockey programs in the unlikeliest of places.
"No matter where I went with my hockey equipment, when I'm meeting people from a local hockey community, they embrace you immediately," Klinkhoff, 23, said in an interview.
"You meet people that are so different from you culturally, even in some cases they don't speak any English, but they treat you like you're best friends."
Founded in 2011, the organization now has programs in Serbia, Turkey, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
While those are hardly hockey hot spots, Klinkhoff says the sport has a small but devoted following in each country. The idea is to send over young Canadian coaches to help the locals improve their existing program.
It's not, Klinkhoff emphasized, to push hockey on communities with no interest in the game.
"We don't go somewhere and say, 'You're going to play hockey now,'" he said. "We go because a local organization or club has asked us to help a hockey program."
The project was started on an informal basis a few years earlier by another young Canadian, Fred Perowne.
The native of Sherbrooke, Que., and former U.S. college player developed strong ties while playing in Serbia's professional league in the early 2000s.
Perowne ended up playing for the country in international competition and worked as an assistant coach for its junior teams, bringing over several other Canadians to help out.
The idea for Hockey Without Borders grew from there.
The organization now has three coaches in Serbia, working with roughly 100 young players, another two in Sarajevo working with 60, while 20 youngsters took part in a recent program in Turkey.
Organizers for Hockey Without Borders say the program isn't just about sport, and that it offers valuable life lessons for everyone involved.
"We're elevating people's games abroad, but we're also helping to grow individuals," said Matthew Robbins, 24, a longtime friend of Klinkhoff.
"We see hockey as this incredible tool to teach other things in life, like leadership."
As an example, Robbins pointed to the experience of a young man in Turkey who credits hockey with changing his life.
It's far from common to spot a hockey stick or skates in Ankara, a bustling city of 4.3 million people, but a small segment of the city's youth has gotten the bug, Robbins said.
Can Acar, 23, said hockey helped turn his life around.
"I used to be so lazy that I didn't even leave my house for one month or more," Ancar said in a video produced by Hockey Without Borders.
"After I started hockey... it makes my life better."
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