In some places, getting to the rink is tougher than anything a kid will face on the ice.
There, hockey is a respite from the inner-city’s mean streets and sketchy subways. Worries disappear, if only temporarily, and love of the game lifts young players into a world where the puck is all that matters. For them, hockey means even more than you might imagine, but the participation barriers include far more than cost and accessibility.
Organizations like the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation have been battling those barriers for decades. So, too, has USA Hockey and the NHL. All three were part of the recent Willie O’Ree Skills Weekend in Philadelphia, an event that included on-ice sessions at the Laura Sims Skate House and the Flyers’ Wells Fargo Center, in addition to off-ice programming at the National Liberty Museum and an Outward Bound team-building session.
USA Hockey’s Rich Hansen was there, as was Gump Whiteside, one of USA Hockey’s Atlantic District American Development Model coordinators, who helped run on-ice skills training.
“A lot of those kids have never been out of their ZIP code, but they have just as much passion for hockey as any travel hockey player,” said Hansen, an ADM regional manager. “It’s a great aspect of the game that most people don’t see enough. And I can’t say enough about the volunteers who give so much passion and energy to these inner-city programs.”
Off the ice, Hansen heard young players’ stories of daunting challenges, some common, like insufficient ice availability, and some uncommon.
“There were kids who, at 10 years old, were riding the subway by themselves, trying to get to the rink. There were kids who faced all kinds of obstacles, just because they wanted to play hockey,” said Hansen. “It was an eye-opener.”
Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s first black player, has heard countless stories like those during his appearances at hockey events throughout North America, and he lived them during his playing days, which is why he pours his energy into helping grassroots inner-city hockey programs each year.
“Everybody looks up to Willie,” said Hansen. “He’s such a great ambassador for the sport.”
And while O’Ree was the namesake headliner in Philadelphia, the kids were the stars. Fifty-five of them were selected to participate as a reward for outstanding effort on the ice and in the classroom. The skills weekend provided them with a memorable training and bonding opportunity. It also provided inner-city hockey cognoscenti from the United States and Canada with a forum to share ideas. For many programs, the need for more support – more ice availability, more funding, more awareness – is especially acute, and events like these help bring more attention to the cause.
“There’s a need and a desire to give these players legitimate hockey development opportunities, not just six weeks here or there,” said Hansen. “These inner-city programs want to develop players who can compete at the highest levels, too. So, events like these are important, where the NHL is involved and they can strengthen those relationships.”