Station: Romance on ice
When Ben introduced teammate Joey to his friend Laura, it started a chain reaction.
One introduction led to another and eventually linked three international Cowichan Valley Capitals’ hockey players with three valley girls — all of whom happened to play field hockey at one time — in marriage.
Ben Nelson hooked up with Jackie Gergel and they married on July 11, 2009. Aaron Spotts and Annamieke Blitterswyk exchanged vows at Bird’s Eye Cove Farm in Genoa Bay on Aug. 11, 2012. Joey Hughes and Laura Brandon — the first to meet, but the last of the three couples to get married — did it in style in Hawaii on Sept. 24, 2012. That was considerate of them because it allowed their families to meet in the middle, between B.C. and Australia.
“I guess it all started when I became friends with Ben, as we had a history class together in high school,’’ recalled Laura.
Ben hailed from Spokane, Washington and came to the valley in 2000 to play for the B.C. Hockey League Capitals. He was housed with Australian Joey at Jim and Darlene Potts’ residence. Laura just happened to live close by.
“I used to go over to hang out and study,’’ recalled Laura. “Joey was a bit intimidated at the start but once we started talking, it was history from there.’’
The next chapter in the story took about a year to develop. Laura went to Spain and Joey headed to play in Trail before they rendezvoused back in Duncan. That’s when the couple introduced the future Mr. and Mrs. Ben and Jackie Nelson and they seemed to hit it off from there.
Jackie worked at Starbucks in the Duncan Plaza and Ben found himself dropping by just to say ‘hi’, whether he needed a drink or not.
“I had to go get tea,’’ he said. “I didn’t drink much coffee back then. We started hanging out after that.’’
Around the same time, Laura met another Spokane hockey player, Aaron, who joined the Capitals and was Ben’s new roommate. Jackie’s friend, Annamieke, had just returned from the University of Calgary, and Jackie put her matchmaking instincts into play with Aaron.
“Jackie and Ben had only been going out for a month,’’ said Annamieke.
They went to a Skate With the Capitals session for fans and “just near the end to it I walked in and Aaron was doing up some kid’s skates,’’ she said. “She introduced us then.’’
After that, “we went public skating together,’’ said Annamieke.
Aaron asked Annamieke to attend a New Year’s banquet with him after a Caps’ game, but he never made it. He separated his collarbone two minutes into the game.
“He was in emergency. He missed the whole banquet,’’ said Annamieke.
But they met back at the Potts’ residence, which later became a frequent hang-out for the three couples.
“Much of it was centred around playing cards,’’ Annamieke said.
After Annamieke went back to the University of Calgary, “we actually talked every day on the phone,’’ said Annamieke. “After his season was done, he drove out to Calgary to visit me and went home to Spokane.’’
Getting together eventually led to being apart for each of the couples for a while, especially after the guys furthered their hockey careers. Joey and Aaron both went on to play college hockey and attend school at St. Scholastica in Minnesota. Ben went to Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.
All three also had some minor pro stints along the way before calling it a career.
“It was a weird transition, where are you taking your life, kind of thing,’’ said Aaron. “I found a new passion in management marketing.’’
“We have been through a lot — university degrees, long distances and times when we wouldn’t see each other — but I think we always knew that we would be together and so we made it work,’’ noted Laura of her situation with Joey.
Jackie had perhaps the most interesting transition once Ben received a full-ride college scholarship.
“If you’re willing to put in the effort,’ I said ‘so am I,’’’ Jackie recalled saying to Ben about a long-term commitment. “Distance makes the heart grow fonder.’’
“We kind of came to the realization it’d be easier for her to move down here (to Spokane),’’ Ben said.
“When he left to play college, I got into a one-year LPN nursing program,’’ said Jackie.
She made the unusual move, and many would say the ultimate sacrifice, by living with Ben’s parents, her future in-laws.
“When I had the chance to get away and see him (Ben), I did,’’ Jackie said.
“If anything, it made me close with his family, in general. They’re a very close-knit family. We didn’t really even think about it — even after.’’
Today, the couples stay connected but live in three widely-varying places in three different countries.
The Hughes are in Australia where Laura is “loving the beach life’’ and has a Pilates studio while Joey runs a hockey shop, coaching business and gym.
The Nelsons live in Spokane. Ben is the superintendent of a golf course in nearby Post Falls, Idaho, and Jackie works as an RN supervisor in a specialty clinic in Spokane. They have a two-year-old son, Byron Nelson, who has the same name as a famous golfer.
And Aaron and Annamieke are living in downtown Duncan. Aaron works for Pacific Homes as a home package co-ordinator and does some marketing, while Annamieke has an English Language Learner contract at Khohemun Elementary School and is a substitute teacher the rest of the time.
“It was hard for us to learn to settle down,’’ said Aaron.
“Our lives had revolved around hockey so much,’’ said Annamieke.
“It makes decisions for you,’’ remarked Aaron.
And it brought six people together in a most unlikely way.
“When I tell the story, it’s almost amazing the way things wind up the way they do,’’ said Jackie.