Nate McBrayer admits his French isn't very good, but he enjoys learning to speak the language.
McBrayer and his teammates on the 12U Ohio AAA Blue Jackets hockey team had the chance to sharpen their French skills while also playing against elite competition when they participated in the 58th annual Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament held Feb. 8-19 in Quebec City.
Competing in the Elite Division, the Blue Jackets went 4-1, losing to eventual champion Quebec Victoriaville 3-2 in a semifinal and finishing third of 28 teams.
In addition to providing valuable playing experience against international competition, the trip was a learning experience for the Blue Jackets, whose roster is comprised of 11- and 12-year-old players from Dublin, Gahanna, Hilliard, Lewis Center, New Albany and Westerville as well as Springfield.
While in Quebec City, the players were housed with nine French-Canadian families known as billet families. The coaches and parents stayed in a hotel.
"It was a really fun trip staying with the billet family," said McBrayer, a defenseman and sixth-grader at Sells Middle School in Dublin. "I learned some French. I'm not good at it, though. It was a really good all-around experience. It will probably be the best trip of my life."
Coach Todd Ehrie said the billet families play an essential role during the trip.
"The billet families are unbelievable," said Ehrie, who was assisted by Ed Gingher, Gordy Haggard and Layne LeBel. "... They make sure these kids are taken care of, physically and mentally, from beginning to end."
The invitation-only tournament, which Ehrie compared to baseball's Little League World Series, is considered one of the top international youth hockey events. More than 120 teams representing 17 countries participated in this year's event.
Former participants include former NHL greats Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Guy Lafleur, Brad Park and Patrick Roy and current NHL star Steven Stamkos.
"It's one of the (events) as far as youth hockey goes that kids look forward to leading up to it and always remember after it," Ehrie said. "When you speak to an NHL player and you ask him what is his most fond memory as a youth player, if he's participated in that tournament chances are he's going to say that."
While in Quebec City, the players, parents and coaches did some sightseeing. Among the places they visited were Galeries de la Capitale, a mall that includes an indoor amusement park; a snow park and Hotel de Glace, a hotel made of ice and snow.
One of the rinks used in the tournament is in Galeries de la Capitale.
"We learned a little bit of French," said forward Trevin Ehrie, the coach's son and an eighth-grader at Olentangy Orange Middle School. "Usually when you go on a trip, when you're done playing, you want to go home, but we wanted to stay there. I want to go back to Quebec to visit in the summer."
Coach Ehrie said money for the trip was raised through fundraisers and a sponsorship through the Columbus Blue Jackets Foundation.
The Blue Jackets capped their season by winning the Ohio Valley Triple A Championships held March 3-5 in Sylvania. They went 5-0 in the event to finish the season 38-12-7.
The Blue Jackets also won the Bauer Invitational held Oct. 21-23 in Detroit and the Tier I Showcase Tournament held Nov. 18-20 in St. Louis.
Rounding out the team were Ryan Cox (defenseman), Ryan Gingher (forward), Johnny Kneidel (forward), Andrew Lacksonen (defenseman), Liam Megahan (goaltender), Jackson Mosby (defenseman) and Hayden Stavroff (forward) of Dublin, Romulus Riego de Dios (forward) of Gahanna, Justin Ennis (goalie) and Erik Miller (defenseman) of Hilliard, Thomas Adam (defenseman), Will Elger (forward) and Mason LeBel (forward) of Lewis Center, Jackson Dickson (forward) of New Albany, Brandon Paluszak (forward) of Westerville and Andrew Chevrette (defenseman) of Springfield.