By Charlene Bidula
Originally published on the Women's Hockey Life website here.
Scoring on an assist by Tie Domi… assisting on another goal by Gary Roberts. These sound like some of the many plays of an NHL player, yet they are now a chapter of the life of 2013 Mario Lemieux Fantasy Hockey Camper, Jackie Soo.
The Mario Lemieux Fantasy Hockey Camp is a yearly event that, according to their website, was established to raise funds for the cancer research projects of the Mario Lemieux Foundation, and to create the best fantasy hockey camp in the world, by bringing in Hall of Fame and All-Pro celebrity guests who are not only huge names in the world of hockey, but are engaging personalities willing to create a team atmosphere which provides campers with an NHL experience unlike any other. All proceeds benefit the Mario Lemieux Foundation, as well as Austin’s Playroom Project. Proceeds from this year’s event also helped fund the Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. This years Camp was held January 5-9 in Pittsburgh.
Jackie Soo was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, Canada and grew up as a Calgary Flames fan. She’s been ice skating all of her life and has been playing hockey for the past 15 years in many places around the world including Hong Kong where she played against teams from Australia, Japan and China and also represented at the World Ice Hockey 5’s in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Soo has also played in Taiwan, Calgary, Vancouver, Denver and Seattle - where she currently resides.
So, how did Soo become a Pittsburgh Penguins fan, and what made her want to participate in the Mario Lemieux Fantasy Hockey Camp?
“Growing up in Calgary, I was a Flames fan. They’re now my second favorite team. I became a Pens fan as I started to follow some of the Canadian superstar players like Crosby and Fleury, who are both my favorite Pens players. I like the Pens too because of how the organization is managed and what they do in the community, much to do with the legacy of Lemieux,” she said. “I put the Camp on my life wishlist. Being a big Pens fan, I knew I couldn’t go wrong coming to Camp: to be able to play in the arena where my favorite team roams, to play with some great names in the history of Pens hockey and of course, I’ve always looked to Lemieux as a role model. He is truly an inspirational person.”
It was a long wait for Soo from the day she put her name on the Camp waiting list at the end of 2011, till she took the ice at the Camp last January.
“Having planned so far ahead was good as it gave me plenty of time to think, prepare, and know that this was something I really wanted. I had the Camp brochure sitting at work in my drawer. Every day I saw it. It was motivation. I later put up the Mario Lemieux Foundation logo on my desk where I could always see it. It gave me incentive to focus on my vision,” she said.
On August 31 of last year, Soo had ankle surgery and four days later, as she was laid up on the couch recovering, she received an email from the Mario Lemieux Foundation that she was off the waiting list and made it into the Camp. It gave her extra incentive to heal up fast.
January came fast, and Soo made her first trip to Pittsburgh for the Camp. She checked in and received her “goodie bag” of hockey equipment and Penguins apparel which included Penguins hockey socks, gloves, helmet, pant shell, hoodie, compression shirts, t-shirt, track jacket, winter hat, cap, Reebok shower sandals, various small Penguins bags, and a Mario Lemieux Fantasy Hockey Camp branded gear bag to hold everything. Many of the campers were chatting in the lobby after receiving their gear, but Soo, being one of only two women in the Camp, felt a little shy and decided not to join them. However, that all changed later on at the dinner and player signing at the Lexus Club at Consol Energy Center.
“The organizers, especially the women, made me feel welcome and immediately introduced me to the other female Camper & to Brianne McLaughlin, the 2010 Team USA goaltender, who was on hand to provide guidance at Camp,” she said.
Later on that night, Soo officially signed a player contract with Mario Lemieux.
“It just made everything so real…seeing Mario there in person, in front of me! I shook his hand, he introduced himself (like he needed to!). We sat down at a table and made small talk. He asked where I was from and said, ‘So you play hockey?’” she said.
After Soo signed the contract, she received two Penguins custom jerseys, one home and one away, with her name and number (88) on them. Her photo was taken in front of a Camp backdrop with Lemieux and herself holding one of the jerseys. Then the celebrity coaches were introduced and teams were announced. There were a total of 16 former NHL players at the Camp including Pierre Larouche, Bryan Trottier, Eddie Johnston, Randy Hillier, and Clark Gillies as coaches, and Lemieux, Paul Coffey, Gary Roberts, Tie Domi, Theo Fleury, Michel Goulet, Mark Recchi, Rick Tocchet, Jay Caufield, and Bill Guerin as players. Soo made it on Pierre Larouche’s team and her teammates included Gary Roberts, Tie Domi and Lemieux (who played with each team at least once).
On the first day of Camp, Soo experienced more of what it’s like to be an NHL player. Even sharing the lockerooms with NHL players was quite an experience for her.
“It was a real thrill stepping into our locker room for the first time, seeing all our gear laid out, personalized jerseys…WOW!” she said. “The locker room was always a place of entertainment: hearing the wisecracks from Roberts and Domi going at each other (they had been teammates in Toronto and you could tell they knew each other well). Roberts was telling us we hadn’t seen the most of it…imagine being with Domi everyday!”
Some of the games at the Camp were played at Consol Energy Center, while others were played outdoors on the Penguins Pond, across the river from downtown Pittsburgh. Soo found this to be the perfect setting to play hockey.
“Playing outdoors brought me back to childhood memories and skating outdoors. Definitely one of the positive, treasured memories of Camp. At one point, the Pond filled up with high school boys who had a game after us and it was a thrill playing in front of a larger audience,” she said.
When not on the ice, Soo and other Campers got to know some of the NHLers during the evening activities.
“In getting to know them, all the players were so down to earth, normal people. They were encouraged to hang out with us - we all stayed at the same hotel and had the same evening and off-ice agenda. This totally added to the overall Camp experience,” she said. “I got to know Theo Fleury well. I had a nice, long chat with him one night. It definitely was a thrill to meet him—I had watched him play as a kid, my Dad used to take us to meet him, get his autograph when he played with the Flames…and here I am chatting away with him. He’s been through a lot in life and is such an inspiration. He’s a very nice guy, approachable and we have a lot in common. It was a thrill to be on the ice with him too! I also found some of the older players very inspirational. For example, hearing Eddie Johnston talk about the old days and what it was like when they drafted Lemieux. ‘I knew he was something,’ he said.”
Soo participated in two practice sessions and five games as a right winger during the Camp. Her team went 2-3 in those games, and she had two goals and two assists. One of the assists was on a goal by Gary Roberts and one of her goals was assisted by Tie Domi.
“I was following behind Tie Domi as he was skating in with the puck. I was telling myself to get ready. He might leave it for me. And he did. Right at the door step in front of the goalie. I took a swing and it trickled in. Tie skated over and gave me a huge hug. I couldn’t breathe! I heard Gary Roberts had a similar experience once when Domi tried to lift him up,” she said. “I was honored when Eddie Johnston was standing at our bench’s exit to the locker room after one of my games where I scored a goal. He was waiting to tell me, jokingly, that he wanted to negotiate a trade for me to join his team, in exchange for Lemieux. He tried to work on Coach Larouche all night for the trade, without much success. One of the games afterwards, Johnston yelled from his team’s bench telling me to slow down out there. He’s such a nice man, a real legend and I was thrilled to meet him—to know that he’s won three Stanley Cups and has experienced some key moments in hockey history. “
Soo had a lot of great experiences during the Camp, but knowing that it supported a great cause was also important to her. She helps out charities through hockey too.
“I’m currently the chief organizer of the women's teams and one of the women’s team captains for the 2013 Hockey Challenge benefitting the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Western Washington and Alaska. Last year, we raised over $16,000 for the House. Though all the 15 years, our teams have raised a total of $4.2 million for the House. I’ve also done work for the NHL’s Hockey Fights Cancer and so participating in the Mario Lemieux Fantasy Hockey Camp and knowing it also supported a cause was a natural thing for me to do,” she said.
If you’re interested in trying to get into the Camp in the future, Soo says it’s a chance of a lifetime.
“The Camp was definitely a life experience—and life hasn’t been the same since. I’m still on cloud nine. I actually dreaded coming back to Seattle and moreover, back to my own league games. I really got spoiled in Pittsburgh with a trainer handling my gear, pre-game meals, transportation…and being centered by Lemieux and linemates with Roberts,“ she said.
Though she learned many things at Camp, one important aspect stood out the most.
“You don’t throw your jersey on the floor in the locker room at any time,” she said. “Show your team respect and the jersey as you would a flag. Never let it touch the ground. Be proud you’re part of the team.”
If you are interested in learning more about the Mario Lemieux Fantasy Hockey Camp, visit www.mariolemieux.org/events/mario-lemieux-fantasy-hockey-camp/.
To support Jackie Soo, who is playing in the Hockey Challenge benefiting the Ronald McDonald House Charities on Feb. 23rd at the ShoWare Center in Kent, WA, visit www.active.com/donate/hockeychallenge2013/jackiesoo.
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Charlene Bidula, Sara Petyk, Cori James and Val Sweeney blog about local women's hockey news, tips, teams and anything else they find helpful to all the women hockey players in Pittsburgh!