NEW YORK – Yankee Stadium’s distinctive white frieze crowned a great day of hockey in the Bronx Saturday, as USA Hockey and the New York Rangers joined forces to celebrate Hockey Weekend in New York.
The festivities began at noon, as eager kids took their first strides onto the same ice their NHL heroes carved in a pair of recent Stadium Series games. First on the agenda was a try-hockey-for-free event, staffed by local youth coaches and former Rangers, along with USA Hockey ADM regional manager Matt Herr. Some wobbled through their very first steps on ice, while others competed in fun station-based games, but beaming smiles were the common denominator.
A cross-ice jamboree was next, featuring youth teams from around the tri-state area, followed by a skills clinic. Parents and players were treated to three simultaneous fast-paced games during the jamboree, with plenty of puck touches, agile escapes and great plays on a grand stage. For some, it was their first experience with cross-ice hockey and it left a lasting impression.
“Seeing this today, I would have liked for our daughter to start with cross-ice, because there’s more skill development happening,” said Mark Salzano, who soaked up the stadium scene with his wife, Colby.
Their 8-year-old daughter, Carly, is in her first year of organized hockey, playing at the squirt level on Long Island. She also plays soccer, but Colby says hockey, with its terrific speed, has become her daughter’s first love.
Mark, who grew up playing roller hockey in Queens, is pleased with his daughter’s youth hockey experience thus far. In addition to the fun she’s having, he also sees her skills and confidence increasing, especially as a result of practices.
“I like the idea of practicing over games,” he said. “And I like the games, too, but I see her develop her skills more in practice. She gets more out of it.”
Also participating in the cross-ice jamboree was 5-year-old A.J. Pavone of the Ramapo Saints. His dad, Anthony, coaches A.J.’s mite team, but he watched Saturday’s jamboree from outside the glass, enjoying the atmosphere and camaraderie with other parents. The kids’ smiles and excitement on the ice recalled his youth hockey experience, which wasn’t always so pleasant.
“For me, in my childhood, hockey was waiting in line and long skating drills,” he said. “Now it’s different. As someone who saw a lot of my friends drop out of hockey, it’s great to see these kids having so much more fun, so many more puck touches, always excited to play.
“These mites today are skating and moving the puck like we used to as 10-year-olds, and they don’t even realize they’re learning. It’s a great new approach to hockey.”
Pavone was also quick to credit the coaches throughout the Ramapo organization for embracing a progressive methodology and making the kids’ hockey experience a good one.
“It’s a testament to those coaches to see kids enjoy the game this much,” he said. “The most important thing is that the kids have fun, and when you watch these station-based ADM practices or cross-ice games, kids are always smiling, always moving and always having fun. And the best part is that they are improving exponentially.”
Ontario native Jay Wells, a former Rangers defenseman with more than 1,000 NHL games and a Stanley Cup to his credit, was also on the scene at Yankee Stadium, helping guide the practices and cross-ice jamboree.
“For me, growing up playing hockey on a frozen pond, it was always a small-area game,” said Wells. “And if you can’t play in small areas, you won’t be much of a player, because that’s what hockey really is, especially at higher levels. Developing those kinds of skills is crucial to the betterment of the game, and USA Hockey has done a great job with that.”
Several other former Rangers including Stefane Matteau, Nick Fotiu and Ron Greschner joined Wells at Yankee Stadium. Even as seasoned veterans of spectacle in the Big Apple, they shared in the delight of what was a special day of hockey.
“I would have been so excited to do something like this as a kid,” said Greschner. “Heck, I’m excited about it now. This is great.”
Wells echoed those sentiments.
“This has been a great week and the kids had a great experience here at Yankee Stadium,” he said. “These kids are the future of the game.”
And if Saturday was any indication, the future is in good hands.