At the mere mention of the New Zealand national hockey team, Sheree Haslemore lights up.
There is nothing better to her than putting on the team’s black and white jersey. She is filled with pride when she stands at the blue line singing her national anthem. Sheree is one of New Zealand’s best hockey players, and for the past four years she has played hockey for Saint Mary’s University in Winona, Minn.
She has a wide smile that projects her infectious happiness to all she encounters, and her accent is a quick giveaway that she’s from somewhere down under. Her sturdy, athletic build allows her to give and take hits, both of which surround the two sports she plays collegiately—hockey and rugby.
“She’s the best ambassador for New Zealand that I know, always a smile on her face,” Winona State University women’s rugby coach Roger Riley said.
Sheree came to the United States from her hometown, Gore, to play hockey and has spent the last four years attending Saint Mary’s University in Winona, Minn. She also plays rugby for the WSU women’s club team. These sports are her greatest connection to a once big and estranged country that she now considers home.
“A lot of people who haven’t met her yet, can learn a lot from her,” Saint Mary’s coach Terry Mannor said. “Her integrity, her work ethic, the fact that she always has a smile on her face. She’s always bubbly; she’s respectful to everyone. She’s a very mature, very independent individual.”
Sheree and her sister were always on the ice; figure skating so often that her dad, Ross, became a prominent member of the local ice skating committee. The local rink was 15 feet by 30 feet and was so run-down that the roof was slowly caving in. Ross maintained the ice using a makeshift Zamboni consisting of a lawnmower, a large metal drum filled with hot water, and a piece of carpet that dragged off the back. Gore’s new ice rink was built in 2002 and is one of only six in New Zealand.
One day Sheree was invited to a hockey tryout the new rink in Gore. She went with the intention of watching, but was asked to play with the team over the weekend since she could skate.
“When she first sort of told us, she just said she was going down to the rink for a practice,” Ross Haslemore said in his heavy New Zealand accent. “And then she come home from practice and I says ‘hang on, you’ve got no gear.’ She says ‘Oh no, it’s all sorted.’ So that was it, she was just playing right from there.”
Sheree had become accustomed to rough and physical play through rugby. The skill that aided her most was her ability to skate backwards, which came from her time with tutu’s and tights rather than wooden sticks and missing teeth. She could skate better than the other girls.
“We just jumped right into it,” Sheree said. “It was quite rapid in the first couple of years.”
Sheree was invited to represent her country as a member of the women’s national ice hockey team, the New Zealand Ice Fernz, at the age of 14. Through the team she met Tennie McCabe. McCabe was an American hockey player who was teaching in New Zealand at the time. Once she learned about Sheree’s aspirations to play North American hockey, she suggested Sheree visit her alma mater, Saint Mary’s. Her chance to visit Saint Mary’s came during a hockey trip to Canada. McCabe eventually moved back to the U.S. and the idea of having a friendly face became the biggest factor in Sheree’s decision to attend Saint Mary’s.
“I really like the small town feel of Winona because I’m from a small town,” she said.
“I knew I wanted to go overseas and I knew I wanted to play hockey and I wanted to have someone there that I knew. That was a big draw card. That was what it came down to was I knew somebody and had a support system, as opposed to jumping off the deep end and hoping for the best.”
She came with a suitcase, a laptop and no winter coat. When Sheree stepped foot on the Saint Mary’s campus for the first time as a student in 2008, she knew one person.
In front of her stood a frightening new social system. She described her first meal at the Saint Mary’s cafeteria as the quickest meal she’s ever eaten. The overwhelming task of creating a whole new life was upon her.
Fortunately, McCabe took Sheree under her wing. She empathized with her because she had been in a similar situation when she moved to New Zealand to teach. She took her dorm shopping, explained some of the cultural differences, and most importantly, listened. Over the first four months they spoke several times a day. She shared tearful moments with McCabe about how she missed her family, and laughed about the cultural differences she met.
One night after finishing a round of golf, Sheree looked up and said to McCabe, “Those are big butterflies.” McCabe could only laugh, as she informed Sheree that the butterflies she was surprised by were in fact, bats.
Sheree finally got settled in when hockey started and she met her teammates. Acquaintances turned into friends and friends into close friends.
Her circle grew when she was invited to play with the Winona State University’s women’s rugby club team in 2009. Because she wasn’t a WSU student, she could only play in friendly games. Although rugby was a connection to home, it was the friendships she gained that kept her on the field.
“The girls were great,” Sheree said. “They were just so welcoming, so friendly and encouraging, like ‘come hang out with us’ and ‘let’s go do things’. Because they were so energetic and enthusiastic to have me come and be involved, I think I just kept at it and it became less about the rugby and more about the friendships.”
This past fall, Sheree missed five hockey games to play in every rugby game after the rugby coaches filed a waiver suggesting she be allowed to play.
“Had it not been her, had it not been someone who sacrificed so much, I’d say make a decision, hockey or rugby,” Mannor said.
About a week before her final two games of her collegiate hockey career, Sheree’s dad stepped out of the car, and she burst into tears. One of the few links she still had to the place she grew up was standing in front of her. And she never saw it coming.
“Holy shit,” Sheree repeated, bending over as her shaking hands alternated from her head to her face. “You guys my dad just showed up!”
Ross had just traveled more than 8,000 miles from Gore to Winona to surprise visit his daughter and watch the end of her collegiate hockey career.
Her senior year of hockey had been a struggle statistically. She went into her second to last game looking for her first goal of the season.
At 11:10 in the second period, with Saint Mary’s on a power play, Sheree saddled up in front of the net and knocked in a rebound to score her first goal of the season. She was swarmed by her teammates in celebration on the ice. Her father welled up with pride in the stands.
That goal was Sheree’s last hockey highlight as a collegiate hockey player. She has returned to New Zealand to play with the Ice Fernz, who won the 2011 gold medal at the International Ice Hockey Federation Division IV Women's Championships in Iceland and were promoted to Division III for 2012.
Sheree’s status as a “Kiwi” in America still hangs in the balance. When she graduates in May she will begin her Optional Practical Training. Then, she must find a way to acquire a green card or she will be forced to leave the country.
Her realistic options are: Find a job that will sponsor her at the cost of around $5,000 and prove to the United States government she’s the best person for the job, or be one of the lucky winners of the Diversity Visa program, also known as the green card lottery.
Out of 3,514 entries, 309 New Zealand applicants had their names drawn in the 2012 green card lottery. This means Sheree has only an 11 percent chance of being chosen to stay in the country if she can’t find an employer, and she has yet to find anyone willing to stake the $5,000 in her future.
She realized that America had become just as much of her home as New Zealand, through school, competing in two sports and a newly constructed social life.
“I almost feel like I’m a foreigner when I go home,” she said.
If Sheree has to leave the country it will be to the disdain of all those she has affected in her time in America.
“The worst part is you know if the person who was in charge of immigration met her, they would be like ‘here’s your green card right now,’” rugby teammate Hilary Pletta said. “She can charm the pants right off of whoever’s in charge of signing that piece of paper. We just need to figure out who it is.”