The road to being part of the best inline hockey team in the world this year all started with a Rotary International Youth Exchange to Australia for former Neepawa graduate Nathan Fleck.
Fleck, having worked his way through Neepawa’s minor hockey system, got the “hockey itch” shortly into his trip, and quickly found the Aussie substitute for the sport; inline hockey.
He continued playing the sport over the year in the warm-weathered country, and when he returned home his experience helped him grab a job with Hockey Alberta where, at that time, part of his job was working with inline hockey associations.
About five years ago, Fleck moved on to the Executive Director’s position with the National InLine Hockey Association (NIHA) and, only a few weeks ago, Fleck found himself leading Team Canada to its first IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation) Inline Hockey World Championship since 1998.
“It was an overwhelming experience. Being Canadian, you see that IIHF name and know what it’s about and what it represents,” Fleck said, pointing out inline hockey doesn’t use ice but is still under the IIHF governing body.
“It’s been a couple weeks now and it still hasn’t really sunk in. Like I say, it’s something you tell your grandkids about.”
Fleck - who now works out of Dauphin but has parents Greg and Susan Fleck still making their home in Neepawa - had a hand in choosing coaches, selecting athletes from four tryouts across Canada, organizing the team and figuring out a few other team logistics along the way.
Since coming on board with NIHA, the executive director has also helped inline hockey's version of Team Canada out of a rough patch.
Shortly after winning its first World Championship in 1998, Hockey Canada stopped overseeing inline hockey's national team, temporarily leaving Canada out of international play.
The NIHA was formed to regrow the sport within a few years, and now works in cooperation with Hockey Canada.
As a result, Team Canada started out in the World Championship's Relegation Pool, worked its way into the Championship Pool, and, in the five years since being involved with the team, Fleck has helped the team improve from being near the bottom of the eight-team Championship Pool to a fourth place finish three years ago and a bronze medal finish two years ago.
This year, he guided Team Canada to capture the 2012 IIHF InLine Hockey World Championship in Germany after defeating the German team 9-5 in the finals.
And while he’s always happy to see the national team’s increased success, Fleck does admit it’s not always easy watching the games from the stands.
“I work with the team 12 months out of the year, and have a hand in who is playing out there,” he explained. “Then, as the guy in the suit in the stands, when the puck drops, you just have to watch and trust the decisions you’ve made. The anxiety is huge, but I think it would be even worse if I had played (top level) inline hockey and then had to watch.
“It sure doesn’t take anything away from winning, though. That was a great feeling after being so involved with it.”
While more popular in Europe and the western United States, the sport of inline hockey is still in its youthful, growing stages in Canada.
British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario prove to be the biggest inline hockey hubs in the nation, while there are scattered leagues in other areas including Winnipeg.
In the inline international community, the United States, Czech Republic and Sweden are considered to be perennial powerhouses. Canada's reputation is growing, but it was not favoured to win the title heading into the 2012 championships.
As for the sport itself, inline hockey differs in a few ways from ice hockey.
The game is played on tile instead of ice, and there is no body contact.
“It’s more of a possession game. The strategy is more similar to basketball than ice hockey,” Fleck explained.
Each game consists of four, 12 minute quarters. Four skaters and one goaltender play at a time for each team, while a centre line offside system is used.
In Canada, the typical inline season is split between spring and fall, often based around the ice hockey season.
Across the nation, about 10,000 players are currently involved in the sport with slow growth being noticed.