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Sullivan finds hockey is a universal language

Thomas Sullivan was invited to be goalie for

Thomas Sullivan was invited to be goalie for the Japanese hockey team during The 2010 Lighthouse International Tournament hosting teams from Nassau and Suffolk counties, as well as teams from Connecticut, Japan, China and Finland. (January 22, 2010) Credit: NY Islanders

The language barrier was the first thing to strike Thomas Sullivan III. The 11-year-old from Floral Park had just been "drafted" to play goalie for the Japanese team in the 2010 International Lighthouse Tournament celebrating youth hockey - and he had no idea how he was going to communicate with his teammates.

"At first, I was a little shocked because 'Oh, man. Do they speak English?' " Sullivan said afterward of his initial concerns. " 'What are their customs? Are they going to be good players or are they going to be not great players?' I tried not to go into it with too many expectations, really."

The Japan team was unable to field a goalie before the invitational, so Sullivan, who had played limited minutes for the Nassau team during a previous Islanders tournament, was called upon. A sixth-grader at John Lewis Childs Elementary School, Sullivan also was playing only his first year of ice hockey after having participated in roller hockey the previous six years.

"I was just thrown in," he said. "I didn't have any practice. I didn't know the team before I came in. I didn't know anything."

When the team dropped its first two games of the tournament, which also featured teams from Suffolk, Westchester, Connecticut, China and Finland, the outlook - and the success of the experiment - looked bleak. Japan lost the Jan. 21 morning game to Suffolk, 6-2, and fell to Connecticut, 6-3, in the afternoon game.

But by the second day of the tournament, things had turned. Maybe it was the jet lag wearing off, or maybe it was the fact that communication in sports often transcends the bonds of traditional language. Whatever it was, it worked.

Sullivan and the Japan team finished the tournament 2-2, with Sullivan defeating his former team. After an early-morning 9-3 win over Harbin, China, on Jan. 22, Sullivan took the ice at Nassau Coliseum and led Team Japan in a 7-3 victory over Nassau.

"I was just like 'Wow,' " he said. "I kind of figured it was jet lag that had an effect on the team the first day, because the second day they were awesome. They came out scoring."

Nassau and Japan were tied at 2 as the first period came to a close, but Japan unloaded as the game went on and Sullivan's net was nearly impenetrable.

Sullivan talked about how he used physical demonstrations to overcome the language barrier.

"A few spoke some English, and the ones who didn't, I'd tap them on the shoulder or move them myself . . . I think they were just happy to have a goalie, because they didn't know if they were going to have one coming here. They were all happy to have me."

Taka Shirai, a coach for Team Japan, noted the qualities that made Sullivan so effective.

"He was a pretty good player, but he was also a good communicator," he said. "He was pretty open-minded and got along with the team. Without language, you can't really communicate in terms of speaking, but because hockey is basically a body-language sport, that's how they communicated."

Sullivan may have started as a fill-in, but he ended up as a member of the team.

"On the ice, it was a good experience to see how the team worked together," Sullivan said. "Off the ice, it was fun because they were doing different things. They had a walk in the morning before breakfast . . . We just walked around the hotel and up to the Coliseum and back. Other than it being cold, it was fun."

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