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Snapshots From Belarus

Samantha Taylor and Jay McKee with Anja, an orphan they befriended in Belarus.

Former Sabre Jay McKee and his life experience in Europe

What started out for former Buffalo Sabres defenseman Jay McKee as an opportunity to travel to a far-flung destination in Europe, play some hockey, reconnect with the guys and have some fun turned out to be far more, as McKee quickly found out after participating in an international tournament staged by the national government of Belarus.

Minsk, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Belarus, isn’t widely regarded as an epicenter of world hockey, but that is quickly changing as the country invests heavily in their hockey program and infrastructure. In 2010 they opened the doors to a gleaming new venue, the Minsk Arena, seating more than 15,000 for hockey and possessing amenities rivaling any peer arena in the NHL. The building is the home for the HC Dynamo Minsk of the Kontinental Hockey League. And last year it was announced that Minsk would be the host for the IIHF World Hockey Championships in May of 2014.

So when McKee got the call a year ago from his close friend and former Sabres teammate Mike Wilson to come play for Team Canada in this tournament in Belarus, he jumped at the opportunity. “The teams are made up from pros from every level of hockey, guys who play or have played in Europe, and even throw in a couple of beer league players,” said McKee. “It’s a chance to see a lot of the fellas you grew up and played with or against. It’s all about the camaraderie and going out and hanging with people after the games, and I am all about that sort of thing.”

The tournament, sponsored by the government, celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. Twelve national teams participate in a round-robin format, with the leaders going to a knockout stage, and winning teams receiving gold, silver, and bronze medals. “The medals themselves rival anything passed out at the Olympics,” said McKee. One of the most recognizable names in this year’s event was former NHLer Alexei Yashin, playing for Team Russia. “Besides Mike [Wilson], a couple of other former Sabres have played in this tournament, including Wayne Primeau and Daryl Shannon.”

Team Belarus took the gold this year, beating their rival Team Russia before a raucous and almost full house at the Minsk Arena. Playing on the Belarus squad was none other than their national president, Alexander Lukashenko, who at age 59 apparently still has a few good moves left on the ice. So did anyone apply the fierce body slam forecheck and level Lukashenko to the ice? McKee laughed and replied, “No, I don’t think that’s gonna happen. Not to the president of the country. But he probably took eight or nine shifts a game.

“This entire tournament is eagerly anticipated and is regarded as a gift to the people of the country. For some of the preliminary games at the smaller rinks there isn’t even an admission charge. It gives some of the poorer citizens who can’t afford tickets the chance to see some of the international stars in action.”

McKee, along with his girlfriend and travel companion Samantha Taylor, found the entire experience and sense of adventure exciting, from dealing with the language barrier and communicating with the locals, to trying to figure out how the strange plumbing apparatus works in the public restrooms, to the decidedly second-world hotel accommodations. “It’s all a bit of a culture shock, but you adapt quickly,” said McKee. “We had excellent handlers and minders who worked with Team Canada and provided us translators and road maps and where to go and what to do.”

But what happened next was a life-altering experience for McKee and Taylor, as they were invited to visit one of the orphanages in Minsk, a group home that can accommodate up to 90 children who are parentless. “It was exhilarating and at the same time heartbreaking,” said McKee. “These beautiful children abandoned by their parents and having nowhere to go. They were so well groomed and so polite, a sparkle in their eye and yet a sadness as well. Here where we come from our kids are so blessed with fortune, where over there the mere gesture of giving a kid a tube of toothpaste would be regarded as hugely generous.”

Like many eastern European countries, Belarus suffers from high rates of drug abuse and alcoholism. Parents who cannot cope with the responsibilities of child-rearing simply deposit their kids on the doorstep of the orphanages. While there is no shortage of families and couples in wealthier countries ready and willing to adopt these children and place them in loving homes, the red tape makes such a task monumental. “A couple of guys from Team Canada were more than willing to look into adoption and bringing some of the children over here. Their government is reluctant to let these children go to western countries. It was a huge hill to climb,” McKee explained.

So returning for his second year at the tournament in Belarus earlier this month, McKee decided to do something about it. He reached out to friends, people in the hockey community, former teammates, and anyone else who would listen, to raise funds and awareness for the orphaned children of Belarus. And he showed up with cash, with toys, with provisions, and also a lot of love for the youngsters. It was a magical experience. “There is no feeling in the world than having one of these kids hop in your lap and just say thank you. You see it in their eyes. It is indescribable,” said McKee, his words cracking with emotion as he described the visit he and Taylor made to the orphanage.

McKee, Taylor, and some of the Canadian teammates were feted with sweets, pastries, and tea during their visit, as the children eagerly opened their presents just in time for Christmas, which is celebrated on January 6 on the Eastern Orthodox calendar. McKee was sharing the experience in real time to his friends and fans back home via social media, and the snapshots and all the smiles told the entire story without the need for captions.

One child who in particular captured McKee’s and Taylor’s hearts was a six-year-old girl named Anja, who was abandoned by her parents while still an infant. McKee had worn a lucky shamrock pin since his early playing days as a junior in Sudbury and Niagara Falls, and a successful 14-year career as a defenseman in the NHL, mostly with the Buffalo Sabres. Now it was time to bestow some of that luck for someone who would need it more. “That pin always brought me luck and good fortune. But it was time to turn it over. So I gave my shamrock to Anja, in the hopes that it will bring her luck in life like it has brought for me.”

After retiring from the NHL in 2010, McKee held coaching jobs with the Niagara Purple Eagles mens hockey program and the AHL Rochester Americans, and now plays/coaches the Senior “A” Dundas Real McCoys in Ontario. Dundas will be the host venue for this year’s Allan Cup tournament, a competition for senior hockey supremacy among teams from all across Canada. Raising his own three children, he still calls Buffalo home and remains loyal to his fans here. “I played for three NHL teams, but the Buffalo Sabres is where I came of age and had my greatest moments, and that will always be with me,” said McKee.

McKee isn’t sure if he will return to Minsk next year to compete in that tournament for a third time, but one thing he will do is maintain his contacts and support with that orphanage, as well as a local children’s Hospice in Minsk, where he and some of his fellow players have donated funds for a capital building program at that facility. “For me it’s all about the kids. I have been given so much in life, and if I can give a little of it back, then it’s all worth it. That’s what it’s about.”

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